By Michael Martin Garrett
There’s only so much you can get done from inside a classroom.
Penn State professor Khanjan Mehta knows this, and so do his students in the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program. That’s why they’re taking their skills out of the classroom and all the way to the African country of Zambia.
“We’re building self-sustaining enterprises that help some of the poorest people in the world,” Mehta said.
Right now the program is raising money to travel Zambia in June, where they will work with local farmers and entrepreneurs to design and build affordable greenhouses. Mehta said that developing economies are heavily based on agriculture, but farmers often lack the technology and tools that are available stateside. They also typically lack the money it takes to invest in making their farms more efficient. Materials to build a standard greenhouse can cost thousands of dollars, well outside the price range most farmers can afford.
That’s where the HESE program comes in. Mehta said students in the program have designed a greenhouse that uses materials that can be purchased for only about $350. Each year, a group of students works to take the basic design and adjust it to the specific climate needs of a developing country.
Hundreds of these individualized design have already been implemented in countries like Kenya, Sierra Leone and Mozambique, where they now help farmers produce up to three times as much food as they could before. Mehta said this goes a long way toward ensuring food security in places where someone’s next meal isn’t always a guarantee.
“If you go to Mozambique, people spend 50 to 60 percent of their household income on food alone,” Mehta said. “…When I went to a market place in Sierra Leone and I saw that it cost a whole dollar for a single carrot, I was completely shocked.”
HESE student Sara Warnquist – a sophomore studying social psychology and community, environment and development – said there’s much more that goes into this project than just the engineering side of things.
The HESE program works with international non-profits and businesses based in developing countries to actually bring the greenhouse to the marketplace, greatly increasing the number of farmers who can take advantage of this new opportunity. Warnquist said this involves a staggering number of variables: making connections in local economies; understanding a country’s social, political and economic trends; understanding and overcoming language barriers and cultural differences; developing a marketing strategy, and much more.
“I’m incredibly excited to go to a new continent and experience a new culture,” Warnquist said of her upcoming Zambia trip. “I can’t wait to talk to people and the ground and create a face-to-face narrative to better understand their perspective.”
Mehta knows the immense good he and his students are performing, but he said it’s important not to spend too much time patting themselves the back. For every person they help feed, there are still more that go hungry.
“There are still lots of challenges for us to address,” Mehta said. “Every once in a while it’s good to sit back, reflect, be thankful for what you’ve accomplished, and then you have to keep going forward.”
Click here to donate or learn more about the trip to Zambia.