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Leila Esmailzada

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.”

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.”

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