The Michigan Engineer News Center

Intercultural solutions bring change to Gabon

In May 2015, Mohit Nahata, a PhD student of Johannes Schwank’s and a member of the REFRESCH team, spent two weeks in the village of Massenguelani in the rainforests of Gabon.| Medium Read

In May 2015, Mohit Nahata, a PhD student of Johannes Schwank’s and a member of the REFRESCH team, spent two weeks in the village of Massenguelani in the rainforests of Gabon. Though Gabon, as a major oil-producer, boasts a relatively high GDP, much of the country’s population still lacks access to electrical power, clean water, and secure food sources.  In looking for ways to improve quality of life and livelihoods of the villagers, the REFRESCH team’s mission was to explore and experiment with approaches to energy, crop protection, bee keeping, clean cookstoves, and water treatment. Joseph Trumpey, from the School of Art & Design, demonstrates new electric fence.

REFRESCH, an acronym for Researching Fresh Solutions to the Energy/ Water/ Food Challenge in Resource-Constrained Environments, is a Third Century Initiative project funded by the Office of the Provost and led by Dr. Johannes Schwank. The REFRESCH project draws upon the resources and expertise of the University to field a strong team of faculty investigators and students from eight schools and departments across campus. REFRESCH is working in Gabon and Kazakhstan.

The major goal of REFRESCH is to facilitate interdisciplinary and intercultural exchange of ideas, implementation processes, and technologies for solutions to food/water/energy constraints. The idea is to not just explore high-tech solutions, but to focus on simple, low-cost solutions that can function reliably and sustainably in remote rural communities.  Working with the people who will use and be directly affected by the designed technologies, is an important component of this endeavor.

When Nahata volunteered to be part of the REFRESCH team traveling to Gabon to bring technology and education to help facilitate change, he didn’t think much about the rugged conditions or any culture shock he might experience. Even though he had seen many photos of Gabon and had heard many stories about the people and the land, he discovered he wasn’t as prepared as he thought was.  The heat was terrible, it rained every other day, and the bugs were unrelenting in their attacks on him and his colleagues.  They had to walk a mile down a steep incline in soggy clay to wash up in a dirty river.  Wandering outside at night was risky because he had to stay clear of scorpions and snakes. As for bathroom facilities—well, there weren’t any.

He soon realized how important it was to adjust to the inconveniences, so he and his team could begin to build trust with the local villagers, and then later return to the village to show that they were not there to run a few experiments and then disappear.  Yes, they were bringing “science” to improve the lives of people but he realized that it was important in the short time he was there to learn to appreciate and understand the ways of their culture that have remained unchanged for so many years.

Nahata worked with a group that provided an overview of water quality and identified concerns, shown in photo on the right. They tested and quantified water samples for various parameters (pH, dissolved oxygen, chlorine, phosphates, nitrates, metals, turbidity, E.Coli and other bacterial coliforms). Broadly speaking, rainwater from roof runoff proved far cleaner than river water. E.Coli and other coliforms were the primary concern with the river water, though samples also demonstrated relatively high phosphate and chlorine concentrations. These findings are concerning, given that E.Coli contamination in drinking water is a leading cause of premature deaths around the world, and especially on the African continent. Additionally, metals analysis found that iron concentrations significantly exceeded drinking water standards.

“The most pressing concern is thus the high levels of bacterial contamination,” says Nahata. “In addition to leading short lessons on general hygiene and installing hand-washing stations, my team created a small-scale demonstration filter, which housed different layers of locally obtained gravel, sand, and cotton cloth. REFRESCH also intends to draw upon student research on solar disinfection and activated carbon from locally available biomass, which could prove a vital part of filtration systems for the removal of pathogenic bacteria such as E.Coli.”

Other projects completed this year in the village included improved cookstoves made of local sand, clay, and cement with stacks driving off harmful vapors.   A low-cost brick press and earthen brick-making, for use in stoves and/or general construction; a demonstration electric fence to protect crops from smaller primates and rodents; a simple solar photovoltaic DC battery lighting and battery recharge system; and demonstration bee hives, also made from local salvaged materials. The bees will not only provide honey for nourishment but market income, a mild antiseptic for minor cuts and burns, and the potential of keeping animals away from the crops.

There was some resistance to the new cookstoves because the smoke that billowed out on their old stoves kept the bugs away. Sure the food cooked quicker and often tasted better on the new stoves but fending off the bugs is important too.  Others inhabitants were reluctant to keep farm animals such as cows and chickens as a dependable source for food.  They are used to the wild meat, or bush meat, an option they think makes them stronger because they think wild animals are better than the “weak” farm animals.  In the end, community members did initiate some of their own design alterations to better fit their preferences and led the final construction stages themselves. Two village chiefs and few community members, who contributed labor and knowledge of local materials, assisted them with the work.

Since his trip to Massenguelani, Nahata has been working to find ways to synthesize activated carbon from wood-based biomass using locally available materials as catalysts so that the villagers can purify their river and ground water prior to consumption.  When he goes to Gabon again in March 2016, he will assist with workshops at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné that they hope will expedite technology transfer to a larger population.

Portrait of Sandy Swisher


Sandy Swisher
Communications & Alumni Relations Coordinator

Chemical Engineering

(734) 764-7413

3118 Dow

The outside of the Ford Robotics building

U-Michigan, Ford open world-class robotics complex

The facility will accelerate the future of advanced and more equitable robotics and mobility | Medium Read