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Acacia Leakey

Sam Aronson. Photo courtesy of BNL

By Daniel Dunaief

Sam Aronson, the retired head of Brookhaven National Laboratory, has set his sights on a new project far from Long Island.

Teaming up with Acacia Leakey, the project management and engineering consultant of a company called SOSAED and a member of the famed family that has made seminal discoveries about human evolution in Kenya, Aronson would like to stimulate the growth of businesses through the use of solar power that provides products and services.

“This [part of Africa] is an area where there’s really little infrastructure,” Aronson said. “We’re looking to help people get up on the economic pyramid.”

The people Aronson and Leakey would like to help are representative of the one billion people without access to electric power. Two-thirds of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Through SOSAED — which stands for Sustainable Off-grid Solutions for African Economic Development — Aronson and Leakey are working with the Turkana Basin Institute of northern Kenya, Stony Brook University, Strathmore University in Nairobi and other Kenyan educational institutions and businesses to integrate business creation in off-grid areas into the larger Kenyan economic ecosystem.

The group would like to create a business model, using local workers and managers, for a range of companies, Leakey explained.

SOSAED plans to start with a small-scale solar-powered clothing production business, which would create affordable clothing for the heat, including skirts, shirts and shorts. SOSAED expects to build this plant adjacent to the TBI research facility.

Ideally, the manufacturer will make the clothing from local material. The clothing business is a pilot project to see whether the model can work for other types of projects in other areas. The Turkana Basin Institute will provide some of the infrastructure, while SOSAED will acquire the equipment and the raw materials and training to do the work.

SOSAED hopes the project will become “self-sustaining when it’s up and running,” Aronson said. “To be sustainable, it has to be the work of local people.” He hopes what will differentiate this effort from other groups’ attempts to build economic development is the commitment to maintenance by people living and working in the area.

“To an extent, the suitability of technology is rarely rigorously considered when humanitarian or generic development projects are implemented,” Leakey explained in an email. “Not only are the skills required for maintenance an important consideration, the availability of spare parts and the motivation and ability to pay for these are also important.”

Developing a system that includes upkeep by people living and working in the area could “make a project move ahead on its own steam,” Aronson said. The area has limited infrastructure, although some of that is changing as new roads and government-funded water projects begin.

Leakey suggested that a long-term project would need extensive participation of the users in every step of the development and implementation. “The project will likely look very different once complete to how we envisage it now, and part of our success (if it comes) will lie in working in a way which allows a great degree of flexibility as it is unlikely we’ll design the ‘right’ system the first time around,” she explained in an email.

In areas with mature systems, Leakey suggested that some organizations had difficulty changing direction, retrofitting existing systems or adapting new technology. New York, she explained, is struggling to adopt sustainable technologies to the extent that it could. “Legislative and physical infrastructure imposes unfortunate roadblocks in the way of clean technologies,” she wrote in an email. “We’re fortunate that with electricity provision we have a fairly blank slate” in Kenya and that the “Kenya government also recognizes the value of off-grid initiatives.”

Leakey appreciates the support TBI played in helping to create SOSAED and is grateful for the ongoing assistance. Through Stony Brook University, SOSAED is beginning to engage business students on economic questions. In the future, the group may also work with engineering students on technological challenges.

“Research may include developing new productive uses of solar power, optimizing the existing system and using the site to rigorously test technologies developed at Stony Brook,” she explained.

Aronson’s initial interest in this project came from his technological connection to Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he retired as the director in 2015. He has been eager to bring new technology to a population he is confident they can help in a “way that makes sense to them and addresses their needs.”

With the support of the Turkana Basin Institute and Stony Brook, Aronson hopes to have a functioning solar hub and factory near TBI that serves a few surrounding villages within the next 18 months. “That’s a very ambitious goal,” he acknowledged. “We’re working in an environment that, because of the history and development, people you’re trying to serve are somewhat skeptical that you’re serious and that you have the staying power to make something that looks like what you’re talking about work.” 

While Aronson and Leakey are continuing to make connections in Kenya with government officials and residents interested in starting businesses, they are searching for ways to make this effort financially viable.

SOSAED is raising money through philanthropic grants and foundations to get the project going. Eventually, they hope to approach venture capital firms who are patient and prepared to invest for the longer term in a number of projects.

After they have an initial example, they will approach other financial backers with more than just a good idea, but with a model they hope will work in other locations.

Aronson lauded the effort and knowledge of Leakey. “We wouldn’t be making much progress right now for a variety of reasons in Kenya if [Leakey] hadn’t come on board,” Aronson said. “I value in the extreme her ability to get the work done.”

SOSAID would like to submit proposals to funding sources that can drive this concept forward.

If this effort takes root, Aronson believes there is a “tremendous market out there.” That would mean this would “become a much bigger organization.”

BeLocal winners from left, Yuxin Xia, Luke Papazian, Manuela Corcho, Johnny Donza and their thesis advisor Harold Walker. File photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Yuxin Xia and Johnny Donza

Johnny Donza wants to use the training he’s received as an engineering undergraduate at Stony Brook University to help people 8,600 miles and another continent away in Madagascar.

The group leader of a senior project, Donza is working with Yuxin Xia, Luke Papazian and Manuela Corcho to design and hopefully help build a bridge that will cross a stream on the outskirts of the village of Mandrivany. People living in that village had been walking across a log that has broken to buy and sell food or get to a hospital.

“I wanted to be involved in something that would make an impact,” said Donza, who is studying civil engineering with a concentration in structural engineering. This project presented an opportunity to help “people on the opposite side of the world. I thought that was pretty cool.”

Donza’s project is one of 15 senior design efforts that arose from a collaboration between Stony Brook and a group called BeLocal. The company sent Stony Brook graduates Acacia Leakey and Leila Esmailzada to collect video footage this summer in Madagascar. They hoped to return with the kind of information about the needs and resources of the people they met.

“These projects create the perfect opportunity for students to manage a real engineering project,” Harold Walker, professor and chair of the Department of Civil Engineering, explained in an email. Walker is Donza’s senior advisor on the project. “The experience the students have with these projects will be invaluable as they start their engineering careers.”

Acacia Leakey, on left

Walker said he initially expected to have one team of four to five students work with BeLocal in Civil Engineering. Instead, 13 students signed up. Walker spoke with Leakey and they decided to divide the students into three teams, each of which is working on different types of bridges. “If the bridge design can be implemented locally in Madagascar, this will improve the safety of river crossings and also provide the community [with] greater access to education and other opportunities,” he continued. “A bridge may seem like a simple thing but it can really be transformative.”

In addition to the bridge project Donza and his teammates are developing, Stony Brook teams are working on projects including rice storage, rat control, rice processing and briquette manufacturing.

Eric Bergerson, one of the three founders of BeLocal along with Mickie and Jeff Nagel of Laurel Hollow, said the group was thrilled with the range and scope of the projects. The response is “overwhelming,” Bergerson said, and “we couldn’t be happier.” Bergerson is the director of research at the social data intelligence company TickerTags.

For their project, Donza’s group is exploring the use of bamboo to create the bridge. “Deforestation in the region is a major problem,” which reduces the ability to find and use hardwood, Donza said. “Bamboo grows rampantly, so there’s plenty of bamboo we can use.”

To gather information about the structural details about this material, Donza and his team are testing bamboo they harvested from the Stony Brook campus. Leakey, who is earning her master’s at SBU after she did a Madagascar senior design project last year, said using bamboo creates a useful supply chain. “It’s such a sustainable resource,” said Leakey, who speaks regularly with Donza and other project managers who are seeking additional information about how to use local resources to meet a demonstrated need in Madagascar.

The Stony Brook team is working to model its structure after the Rainbow Bridge, which is an ancient Chinese bridge. The Rainbow Bridge has a longer span and has a more exaggerated arch than the one Donza and his classmates are designing. The group plans to build a structure that will hold several people at the same time. During monsoon season, the stream below the bridge also floods. The design may need to include nails or bolts, creating a durable, longer-lasting bond between pieces of bamboo.

The team is also waiting to collect information about the soil around the stream, so they know what kind of foundation they can construct. In their design, they are trying to account for a likely increase in the population and future windy conditions.

Donza said he and his team are excited to make a meaningful contribution to life in Madagascar. “We’re not just doing this to graduate,” he said. “We’re doing this because we have a chance to help people. They need this bridge.”

Leila Esmailzada

The BeLocal approach to the collaborations with Stony Brook involves learning what people need by observing and interacting with them, rather than by imposing expectations based on experiences elsewhere. Esmailzada said they spoke with women about various materials because women were the ones using the charcoal and firewood.

At some point, BeLocal may also foster an exchange that allows students from Madagascar to come to Stony Brook to learn from their American counterparts while also sharing first-hand information about what might work in Madagascar. “It’d be great if we could get people to come” to Stony Brook, Bergerson said. “We’re just developing relationships with universities now.”

Leakey said Stony Brook students have shown genuine interest in life in Madagascar and, as a result, have found some surprises. People across various disciplines assume incorrectly that developing nations progress along the same technological path that America did, which leads them to the inaccurate expectation that Madagascar is 100 years behind the United States. When engineering students learned that “people in Madagascar have smartphones” with Twitter and Facebook accounts, “their jaws fall. It’s important to recognize that so you can realize it isn’t a simple story that you’re innovating for and that there is this mixture of technology that’s familiar in a lifestyle that’s unfamiliar.”

Even while these projects are still in the formative stages, with students continuing to gather information and refine their projects, Walker suggested they have already provided value to engineering students. “The students have already learned a great deal,” Walker explained. They appreciate how their classroom skills “can really transform the lives of people across the world.”

SBU graduate student and grand niece of world renowned anthropologist Richard Leakey, Acacia Leakey, draws a sketch of huts in the village of Ambodiaviavy, Madagascar as the children look on. Photo from Mickie Nagel

By Daniel Dunaief

 

Mickie Nagel recently returned from the island nation of Madagascar, and she’s filled with ideas, inspiration, observations and opportunities. One of the three founders of a new nongovernmental organization called BeLocal, the Laurel Hollow resident spent several weeks with Stony Brook University graduate students Leila Esmailzada and Acacia Leakey taking videos and gathering information about life in Madagascar.

The goal of the new organization is to share this footage and insight with undergraduate engineers at SBU, who might come up with innovations that could enhance the quality of life for the Malagasy people.

In one village, a man showed her a three-inch lump on his shoulder, which he got by dragging a long stick with bunches of bananas that weigh over 100 pounds along a clay footpath out of the forest. People also carry rice that weighs over 150 pounds on their heads, while many others haul buckets of water from rivers and streams to their homes while walking barefoot.

In addition to transportation, Nagel also found that villagers around Centre ValBio, a Stony Brook research station, had basic food and water needs. Over 17 years ago, another group had installed four water pumps in a village to provide access to water. Only one pump now works.

SBU graduate student Leila Esmailzada helps villagers in Ambodiaviavy, Madagascar, clean rice. The job is usually delegated to the children who pound the rice for 30 minutes. Photo by Mickie Nagel

As for food, some villagers in Madagascar spend hours preparing rice, including beating off the husks and drying the rice. They store this hard-earned food in huts that are often infiltrated with rats, who consume their rice and leave their feces, which spreads disease.

Traveling with Esmailzada and Leakey, Nagel not only helped document life in these villages but also searched for information about available resources to drive engineering innovations, while Leakey gathered information about an invasive species of guava.

“Ideally, if any projects require wood, then they should incorporate guava sticks into their design, as opposed to planks from forest trees,” explained Leakey in an email sent from Madagascar. The graduate student, who recently earned her bachelor’s degree at Stony Brook, will be recording the average thickness of the stems, the average length of a straight piece and the load capacity of the branches. Leakey plans to return from the African continent in the beginning of August.

Leakey also visited metalworkers to explore the local capacity. The raw materials come from scrap metal dealers, who often get them from old car parts.

Nagel started BeLocal with her husband Jeff Nagel and a classmate of his from their days as undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon University, Eric Bergerson. Indeed, BeLocal fulfills a long-standing goal of Jeff Nagel’s. Before freshman year in college, Nagel told Bergerson that he wanted to do something that had a positive impact on the world.

While the founders have contributed through their work, their jobs and their families, they found that partnering with Stony Brook University and Distinguished Professor Patricia Wright in Madagascar presented a chance to have a meaningful impact on life on the island nation.

Nagel, whose background is in marketing, visited Madagascar over two years ago, where she traveled for over a hundred hours on a bus through the country. “You just see people living below the poverty line and you see how that plays out in normal day-to-day activities,” she said. “You see a young mom carrying a child on her back and one on her front, with heavy produce on her head and you just think, ‘Wow, there has to be an easier way for some of this.’”

Mickie Nagel, far right, on an earlier trip to Central ValBio with her daughters Gabrielle, far left, and Lauren, center. when they first visited Centre ValBio. Photo by Heidi Hutner

When Nagel returned from her initial trip to Madagascar with her daughters Gabrielle, 18, and Lauren, 17, she and her husband thought people around the world would likely want to help but that not everyone could afford to travel that far.

Nagel recalls Bergerson, who is the director of research at the social data intelligence company Tickertags, telling her that they “don’t have to travel there. You can videotape the daily challenges and crowd source” innovations.

That’s exactly what Leakey and Esmailzada did for the last few weeks. Leakey said she is looking forward to working with senior design students as they go through their projects at Stony Brook and is eager to see how they understand the situation “through the footage and pictures we collect.”

The BeLocal approach isn’t limited to Madagascar, the BeLocal founders suggested. Indeed, given the distance to an island famous for its lemurs, animated movies and an Imax film that features primates with personality, BeLocal could have started in a Central American country like Belize.

Mickie Nagel, however, urged them to start at a location where they would immediately have the trust of local residents. That, she suggested, came from the over quarter of a century of work from Wright, an award-winning scientist who has not only helped preserve Ranomafana [National Park in Madagascar] but has also helped bring health care and education to the villages around the CVB research station. Wright and the Malagasy people have a “mutual respect for each other,” Nagel said.

“People have been exceptionally warm and welcoming,” Leakey said. Getting people accustomed to the presence of cameras hasn’t been straightforward, as people sometimes stop what they are doing, but the guides have helped make the villagers more comfortable.

Jeff Nagel, who works at a private equity firm in New York City, explained that Madagascar is the first step for BeLocal. This effort “can be expanded to other countries or other areas,” Nagel said. “It doesn’t have to be engineers and universities,” but can be instituted by creative people everywhere.

At this point, BeLocal is not looking for any additional funding but might consider expanding the effort at this time next year. Nagel said this fall, they will look for professional engineers to advise on projects. “We would like people who are interested in participating or just keeping up with developments to come and register on our website, www.BeLocalgrp.com,” she suggested.

The site, which the group is upgrading, is up and running. Bergerson explained that they have a “lot of infrastructure to build on” to create the crowd sourcing platform.

Jeff Nagel suggested that this effort is designed to use technology constructively. “Technology’s job, first and foremost, is to help humanity,” he said. “This is a chance to use it in a way that matters to people.”

Student Giancarlos Llanos Romero will be joining the SBU team on a trip to Kenya this summer. Photo by Phoebe Fornof

By Daniel Dunaief

In a region known for the study of fossils left behind millions of years ago, a team of students from Stony Brook University’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences is planning to travel to Kenya this summer to learn about and try to solve the challenges of today.

The university will send eight undergraduates to the Turkana Basin Institute for the engineering department’s first program in Kenya, which will run for over four weeks. In addition to classroom study, the students will seek opportunities to offer solutions to problems ranging from refrigeration, to energy production, to water purification.

The students learned about the opportunity in the spring, only a few months before they would travel to a country where the climate and standard of living for Kenyans present new challenges. “We were skeptical about how many students we would be able to get,” said Fotis Sotiropoulos, the dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who “didn’t start marketing this” until after he took a trip to Kenya and the Turkana Basin Institute, which Stony Brook created at the direction of world-renowned anthropologist Richard Leakey.

Giancarlos Llanos Romero, who is interested in robotics and nanotechnology and is finishing his junior year, had originally planned to spend the summer seeking an internship in the Netherlands or Germany. When he learned about this opportunity, he immediately changed his focus. “I need to do this,” Romero said. “This is much more important than anything I could do in an internship.”

On first blush, the trip is anything but ideal for Romero, whose skin is sensitive to extreme heat, which he can expect to encounter in the sub-Saharan African country. He didn’t want that, however, to stop him and is planning to travel with seven other people he met for the first time last week. Romero said his immediate family, which is originally from Colombia, supported the trip.

Sotiropoulos, who is in his first year as dean, embraced the notion of connecting the engineering department with the Turkana Basin Institute. “Before I came here” said Sotiropoulos, “I felt very passionately about making sure that engineering students became familiar with the rest of the world” and that they understood global challenges, including issues like poverty and water scarcity.

Sotiropoulos met with TBI Director Lawrence Martin during one of his interviews prior to his arrival at SBU. Martin invited Sotiropoulos to visit with Richard Leakey, the founder of TBI whose family has been making scientific discoveries in Kenya for three generations.

Women and children in Kenya searching for, and drinking from, water found beneath the dry riverbed. Photo by Lynn Spinnato

This program quickly came together after those meetings. The two courses will teach students about design thinking, said Robert Kukta, the associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Stony Brook would like to help students develop “the ability to think broadly about solutions and boil it down to the essence of the problem,” Kukta said. This, he said, will all occur in the context of a different culture and local resources.

Students will start their summer experience in Nairobi and then they will travel to Princeton University’s Mpala Research Centre, Martin said. “The journey through Kenyan towns opens visitors’ eyes tremendously to how different peoples’ lives are in different parts of the world,” Martin explained by email. “The goal is not so much to contribute immediately but to understand the challenges that people face, the resources available locally and then to improve their ability to think through possible solutions.”

Once students arrive at TBI, they will have an opportunity to see fossils from many time periods, including those from late Cretaceous dinosaurs. “Every visitor I have ever taken to TBI is amazed and in awe of the abundance of fossil evidence for past life on Earth,” Martin said.

A distinguished professor in the Department of Chemistry at SBU, Benjamin Hsiao, who traveled with Sotiropoulos to Kenya in the spring, is a co-founding director of Innovative Global Energy Solutions Center. Hsiao has been developing water filtration systems through IGESC, which brings together TBI with universities, industry, international governments and foundations. He is well acquainted with the challenges the first set of students will face.

“Once we bring technologies over to Kenya, [sometimes] they do not work for reasons we have not thought of,” which include dust or a broken part for which it’s difficult to find a replacement, he said. “Those failed experiments give us tremendous insight about how to design the next-generation systems which will be much more robust and sustainable and easier to operate by local people.”

Acacia Leakey, who grew up in Kenya and is Richard Leakey’s grandniece, recently completed her senior design project as an undergraduate at Stony Brook. Her work is intended to help farmers extend the life of their tomato plants when they bring them to market.

About 32 percent of the tomatoes go to waste from the extreme heat. Acacia and her team developed a vegetable cooler that employs solar panels to reduce the temperature from 32 degrees Celsius to 15 degrees Celsius, which should extend the life of the tomatoes. Her classmates were “surprisingly supportive” of her work, she said, as some of them hadn’t considered applying their skills in a developing country.

Leakey, who will train for her master’s degree at Stony Brook this fall, will continue to provide insights into Madagascar, another developing African nation where the university has an internationally acclaimed research center. This summer, she will produce a video that will record information from villages near Centre ValBio in Madagascar, which she will bring back to Stony Brook in the hopes of encouraging others to use that information to create their own design projects next year.

As for Romero, who is raising money for the trip through a GoFundMe page, he is prepared to discover opportunities amid the challenges of his upcoming trip and is eager “to be able to actually help a community and say I left a mark.”

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