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BeLocal

Above, Leila Esmailzada, executive director of BeLocal observes a traditional charcoal making process in Madagascar. Photo from BeLocal

By Daniel Dunaief

BeLocal has progressed from the drawing board to the kitchen. The nonprofit group, which was started by the husband and wife team of Mickie and Jeff Nagel as well as data scientist Eric Bergerson, has been working to improve and enhance the lives of people living in Madagascar.

BeLocal, which started in 2016, has sent representatives, including Laurel Hollow resident Mickie Nagel and executive director Leila Esmailzada, to travel back and forth to the island nation off the southeast coast of the African continent.

Working with Stony Brook University students who identified and tried to come up with solutions for local challenges, BeLocal has focused its efforts on creating briquettes that use biomass instead of the current charcoal and hardwood, which not only produces smoke in Malagasy homes but also comes from cutting down trees necessary for the habitat and the wildlife it supports.

Biochar briquettes reduce the amount of hardwood Malagasy residents chop down to provide fuel for cooking. Photo from BeLocal

“In the summer of 2018 we figured out that we had something that works,” said Mickie Nagel. “We had all the agricultural waste and could turn it into fuel. Our goal is to start thinking about how to bring it into communities and into the daily lives” of people in Madagascar.

In January of this year, Esmailzada partnered up with Zee Rossi to introduce the new briquettes to residents of three villages, who were interested in the BeLocal process and offered feedback.

Rossi worked in Madagascar for three years as a part of the Agricultural Food Security Advisory Section of the Peace Corps, until he recently joined the staff at BeLocal.

At this point, BeLocal has helped create four working production sites for the briquettes, all of which are on the outskirts of the Ranomofana National Park, which Stony Brook Professor Patricia Wright helped inaugurate in 1991.

The biochar briquettes solve several problems simultaneously. For starters, they reduce the amount of hardwood Malagasy residents chop down to provide fuel for cooking. The biochar briquettes are made from agricultural waste, such as corn husks and cobs, rice stalks, leaves, small sticks and even unusable waste from the production of traditional charcoal.

The briquettes also produce less smoke in the homes of the Malagasy. At this point, BeLocal doesn’t have any data to compare the particulates in the air from the briquettes.

One of the current briquette makers is generating about 2,000 of the circular fuel cells per month. As a start-up effort, this could help with several families in the villages. Nagel estimates that it takes about 12 briquettes to cook a meal for a family of four. The families need to learn how to stoke the briquettes, which are slightly different from the cooking process with the charcoal and hardwood.

Esmailzada and Rossi had planned to return to Madagascar in July, where they hoped to understand how people are using these sources of energy.

Esmailzada has taught and workshopped with the Malagasy on how to make the briquettes. Since returning to the United States, where she recently completed a master’s program in public health with a focus on community health at Stony Brook University, she was eager to see how much progress has been made.

BeLocal has continued to refine the technique for creating these briquettes. Working across the border with Stony Brook graduate student Rob Myrick, Malagasy residents have tried to char the biomass in a barrel, instead of digging a pit.

“Hopefully there will be movement” with the barrel design, Nagel said.

Myrick is working on refining the airflow through the pit, which could enhance the briquette manufacturing process.

Myrick will “work on techniques [at Stony Brook] and [Rossi] will work on the process with the villagers over there,” Nagel explained in an email. Myrick has been “such a helpful and great addition to BeLocal.”

Esmailzada and Nagel are delighted that Rossi joined the BeLocal effort.

“It’s such a natural partnership,” Esmailzada said. “He built this incredible trust with this group of really dynamic people. Having him be the liaison between us and the community really came together nicely.”

Rossi explained some of the challenges in developing a collaboration that works for the Malagasy. “One of the biggest barriers is being a foreigner,” he said. “With any new thing you present to a farmer, you have to sell yourself first. It’s really important that you connect with a farmer on a person-to-person level.”

Numerous farmers are skeptical of the ongoing commitment foreign groups will have. Many of them have experience with a foreigner or a local nongovernmental organization coming in, doing a program and “not following up,” Rossi added.

Nagel is putting together a nongovernmental organization conference to get the organizations “working on projects in the same room,” she said.

Through this effort, BeLocal hopes to create new partnerships. The organization continues to work with Stony Brook’s VIP program, which stands for vertically integrated projects.

Students from sophomore year through graduate school can continue to work on the same projects. The goal is to enable a continued commitment, which the school hopes will lead to concrete results, instead of one-year efforts that often run into obstacles that are difficult to surmount in a short period of time.

Ultimately, Nagel believes the process of building briquettes could translate to other cross-border efforts and suggested that these goals should include the kind of information crowd-sourcing that benefits from other successful projects.

BeLocal is receptive to support from Long Islanders and elsewhere.

Nagel added that projects like the briquette effort keep the context and big picture in mind.

“Helping Patricia Wright save this rain forest and the lemurs will always be a goal and we know the only way to do that is to help with alternatives to food and fuel sources, and better farming techniques so they don’t have a need to slash and burn more rain forest to add more farming fields,” Nagel said.

Leila Esmailzada, kneeling, with another BeLocal team member Caroline Rojosoa (in the black argyle sweater) distribute trial briquettes. Photo courtesy of BeLocal

By Daniel Dunaief

Leila Esmailzada set out to change the world but first had to perform a task that turns many people’s stomachs: clean someone else’s vomit off the floor.

The Stony Brook University graduate student, who is in the master’s Program in Public Health, traveled to Madagascar for a second consecutive summer with the nonprofit BeLocal Group to help several teams of student engineers put into place projects designed to improve the lives of the Malagasy people.

Before they could help anyone else, however, these students, many of them recent graduates from the College of Engineering, fought off a series of viruses, including a particularly painful stomach bug.

Esmailzada said she saw cleaning the vomit off the floor as part of the big picture.

“Compassion really plays into being abroad for your work and for your team, because you realize that everybody came here for a shared mission,” Esmailzada said. “What happens along the way is sometimes just a result of the path that brought them here.”

Briquettes lay out to dry in Madagascar. Photo courtesy of BeLocal

Indeed, beyond Esmailzada’s compassion, her ability to continue to accomplish tasks in the face of unexpected and potentially insurmountable obstacles encouraged BeLocal, a group started by Laurel Hollow residents Mickie and Jeff Nagel and Eric Bergerson, to ask her to become the group’s first executive director.

“I can’t say enough about [Esmailzada] being so resourceful over there,” said Mickie Nagel, who visited the island nation of Madagascar the last two years with Esmailzada. “She thinks about things in a different way. You can have the best product, but if you can’t connect it to the Malagasy and understand more deeply what they need, what their concerns or wants are” the project won’t be effective.

This past summer BeLocal tried to create two engineering design innovations that had originated from senior projects at SBU. In one of them, the engineers had designed a Da Vinci bridge, borrowing a model from the famous inventor, to help villagers cross a stream on their way to the market or to school. When the makeshift bridge constructed from a log or tree got washed away or cracked, the residents found it difficult to get perishable products to the market.

The first challenge the group faced was the lack of available bamboo, which they thought they had secured months before their visit.

“When the bamboo wasn’t delivered, I figured we were now going to do research on bamboo,” Nagel explained in an email, reflecting the group’s need to react, or, as she suggests, pivot, to another approach.

When they finally got bamboo, they learned that it was cut from the periphery of a patch of bamboo that borders on a national park. Government officials confiscated the bamboo before it reached BeLocal.

“We were happy to see that law enforcement recognized and acted on the ‘gray area rules’ of conserving the national park, which shows that the hard work Madagascar is putting into conservation is actually paying off,” Esmailzada said. She eventually found another provider who could deliver the necessary bamboo a few days later. This time, an important material was cut down from a local farm.

While they had the bamboo, they didn’t know how to cure it to prepare it for construction. Uncured, the bamboo could have become a soggy and structural mess. “We did try to cure [it] a few different ways, but we really didn’t have the time needed to properly treat all of it,” Nagel said. “We didn’t anticipate the bamboo not arriving cured since it was what we had been working on for months.”

Nagel credits the bridge team with adjusting to the new circumstances, constructing two girder bridges over creeks for more market research.

The BeLocal team also worked on a project to create briquettes that are healthier than the firewood the Malagasy now use for cooking. The wood produces considerable smoke, which has led to respiratory diseases and infections for people who breathe it in when they cook.

The group produced briquettes toward the end of their summer trip and presented their technique to an audience of about 120 locals, which reflected the interest the Malagasy had shown in the process during its development.

This fall, BeLocal is working on ways to move forward with sharing the briquette technique, which they hope to refine before the new year. BeLocal wants to develop clubs at Stony Brook and at the University of Fianarantsoa in Madagascar that can work together.

While BeLocal will continue to share senior design ideas on its website (www.belocalgrp.com) with interested engineers, the group is focusing its energy on perfecting the briquettes and getting them to people’s homes in Madagascar.

Nagel admired Esmailzada’s approach to the work and to the people in Madagascar.

Esmailzada said she studied how people in Madagascar interact and tried to learn from that, before approaching them with a product or process. She believes it’s important to consider the cultural boundaries when navigating the BeLocal projects, realizing that “you are not the first priority in a lot of these villagers’ lives in general. You have to understand they won’t meet and speak with you. It’s a reasonable expectation to ask maybe three times for something before you think you can get it done.”

Esmailzada also developed a routine that allowed her to shift from one potential project to another, depending on what was manageable at any given time.

The Stony Brook graduate student is delighted to be an ongoing part of the BeLocal effort.

“I love working with an organization that has the passion and vision as large as BeLocal,” she explained. “This work is fulfilling because you are working toward the chance of improving the well-being of another person or community.”

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.”