28 September 2009


DOUBLE BACKFLIP AWESOME TRIP. We managed to check off quite a number of typical India experiences:
  • Filled out lots of paperwork. India sure likes paperwork for every occasion. And tea. Chai and paperwork at every turn.
  • Traveled by rickshaw, taxi, train, car, foot...dodged cows, goats, dogs, and monkeys
  • Leafed through dusty books at the IIT Delhi campus library
  • Visited Humayon's tomb (wow...), Qutb Minar [jaw hits floor] and the iron pillar (modern day mystery, it's been standing 1600 years and hasn't rusted...supposedly scientists have been unsuccessful in duplicating the alloy)

Humayun's Tomb - didn't have camera, image stolen from here

Qutb Minar, I took 7,000 photos, it's absolutely stunning. And apparently attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal
  • Talked shop with some incredible social entrepreneurs
  • Met a Bollywood Star (Shilpa Shukla from Chak De! India)
  • Ate lots of home-cooked Indian food
  • Ate lots of Indian food in roadside stalls (Chantar Mantar Dosa Wala in Delhi is fantastic)
  • Ate in an American Diner
  • Visited urban tuberculosis treatment micro centers in Muradabad
  • Journeyed north to visit villages in the Kumaon region - foothills of the Himalayas
  • Yoga (of course)
  • Saw grassroots silk worm farming in action
  • Received surprise aura healing by an Indian gentleman who earlier took two seconds to go from talking about uber-accounting to the importance of opening one's self like a flower to other people
  • Followed our Sikh rickshaw driver on a tour through a Sikh temple
  • Quested out to buy some tabla
  • Dropped in on a surprise birthday party
  • Swung through a night Bengali festival
  • Decided that airports are always the worst part of the trip

Our trip originally had three main purposes:

1) Meet up with Avani. Avani does great work. For my Master's thesis, I'm working to help them with their plans to use pine needles to create electricity and high quality cooking fuel to mountain villages.

2) Meet up with Envergent. Honeywell is developing a flash pyrolysis process to convert biomass to electricity. They're interested in rural applications.

3) Meet up with Operation Asha. My advisor, Scott, volunteers with a foundation that works on fighting tuberculosis and they recently partnered with Operation Asha, a fiesty, innovative new tuberculosis organization.

wow. wow. wow.

Avani is incredible. They do so many things right. Imagine a Barefoot College Campus in the foothills of the Himalayas, 100% powered by renewable energy. Water is collected from rain and stored in multi-thousand gallon tanks. Local women dye silk and wool with natural colors and weave them into breathtaking patterns that are marketed and sold to wealthy consumers. Avani workers "leave their caste at the gate" and live, work, eat together. Extraordinarily delicious local ingredient food for every meal. It has all my favorite elements:

1) AWESOME people
2) Cash flow from outside into a rural community (usually money only trickles out as the poor by products, it's hard to find good examples of good cash flow coming in)
3) Renewable energy, eco-conscious (goes straight to my eco-puritan heart)
4) Heart-stopping scenery
5) Great food

I'm way too excited about the pine needle gasification project to stop and type about it now. It has so much potential I think about it non-stop these days.

I feel so blissfully lucky -- I met Rajnish (co-founder) and Chanchal (lead technician) at IDDS this summer. Then everything fell into place, almost of its own accord. It felt like one day I was bubbling to Scott about how great it would be to work with Avani on their gasification project, I blinked and we were riding up the twisty roads into the mountains of Uttarankhand.

Beautiful lady - all the women I saw in the mountains were stunning, especially the old ladies

Rice paddies on steep slopes

Avani silk worm farmer. All the leaves inside are crawling with silk worms.

Operation Asha is also beyond words. We met Sandeep and Shelly, the founders, and friends of SK. Incredible, wonderful, determined people. Thought it was about time to take a common sense approach to tuberculosis (TB) and they're producing impressive results after only a few years. They build up a network of treatment micro-centers that are accessible and open for long hours so that it's easier for TB patients to come by and take their medicine every day. It could be in a shop, or someone's home. It makes it much easier to reach patients in a cost effective way -- other tuberculosis programs typically spend $300/patient while Asha does a better job for $15/patient. I'll describe the Operation Asha strategy more in depth in a future blog entry, it's quite fantastic. (Their website is a bit clunky at the moment, but trust me, they're phenomenal.)

Yes, I liked India a lot.

19 September 2009

Deviations on a theme

Today I woke, sat up, and found myself staring at ancient stone tombs, a wide lake and [gasp] greenry everywhere. I probably should not have accepted that drink from that weird guy by the boat docks last night...

Errrr, rather, Ramadan is ending soon, which means that there's a school break for Eid, the end of Ramadan. Scott Kennedy, a Masdar professor who's my thesis advisor, and I thought it would be a good time to travel out to India to set up some projects. Visas, tickets, paperwork all came together at the last moment and much earlier this morning we arrived in New Delhi (only a 3 hr flight from Abu Dhabi) jumped in a taxi, then managed to scramble on foot through some twisting alleyways to find the apartment of one of Scott's old friends. It was still dark, so we all fell asleep again, and woke up to one of the best apartment views I've ever seen.

Delhi has a talent for whirring modern traffic life around solemn ancient monuments. I suppose I expect ruins to be out in the jungle somewhere, not cosying up to apartment complexes.

02 September 2009

I chew fufu

IDDS 2009 is over. I can't believe we pulled that off. Definitely the craziest venture I've ever been a part of. More participants this year, more organizers, less funding, we moved to a foreign country for the first time, added in 3 sets ofvisits to 10 different villages, my hat is off to the people who were muscling the logistics this year.

This year's list of projects include:
  • Batteries made from aluminum cans, salt water, charcoal, and copper wire (they powered a 12 LED lantern or a radio from a six pack of batteries!)
  • A device for producing chlorine from table salt and water with pedal power (for clean drinking water)
  • Various tools for making it easier for rural women peanut farmers to remove peanuts from the roots of the plant
  • A rice threshing wheel of doom
  • A novel way to extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables by absorbing their rotting gases with corn cobs

I'm in charge of posting all the project reports on Appropedia. I'll post here when that's done if you feel like browsing.

Now I'm back again in Abu Dhabi, where it's quite clear Masdar and IDDS are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Abu Dhabi is empty. In Boston, every night there were at least 7 different tempting options to choose between - talks, dances, bike rides, late night meetings, music, theatre, capoeira, drumming. In contrast, there is little to do in here Abu Dhabi, I spend a lot of time alone in my room...which can be very pleasant, in a Zen way. Limited choices = happiness.

In Abu Dhabi there is more time for reflection, for thinking about where I've been and where I want to go. I'm better at keeping in touch with my parents, and I'm working more on my music-reading skills and learning bits of new languages like Arabic and French. At the Masdar Institute, I spend all day doing self-directed research on renewable energy in developing regions. I love it. My advisor is amazing, and I have a ton of control over which direction I go, which means I have tons of room to learn things I've always wanted to know. I also exercise nearly every day, which balances the zombied feeling caused by spending all my working hours staring at a laptop. I sleep well, I eat well, I breathe a lot. I suppose I have more time and space to balance myself overall.

IDDS is fullfullfull. Chaos, merriment, frustration, triumph, mad wild excitement, exhaustion. When I'm at IDDS, I don't have a self anymore, there is only IDDS.

No time to talk to parents, my eating habits are horrible, exercise is infrequent, and sleep comes in snatches where I can grab it. I also have very little control over what I do or where I go -- it's all determined by IDDS or what needs to be done to help IDDS happen. It's hard to take care of myself, but the tradeoff is working intensively with so many awesome people on amazing projects. IDDS people are incredible.

A random sampling: Patricia Tarwali started a school in Sierra Leone, and now she also teaches welding to girls. Bernard Kiwia is a bike mechanic-turned-inventor from Tanzania. Gago Cadan is a yak herder from Tibet, who has also started his own school for nomadic kids (and likes to sing Tibetan songs while wandering through the hall.) Benjamin Dankwa is a farmer from central Ghana. Carla Tennenbaum is an internationally recognized artist from Brazil who makes art with EVA waste. And of course, Suprio Das, an inventor from India who was my co-conspirator on our IDDS team this year, it was awesome to be able to work alongside him. (These photos taken by Nathan Cooke.)

Bernard, IDDS veteran

Suprio, as himself.

It is essential that I take a moment to share a few of my favorite Suprio quotes:

"Hello, my name is Suprio. I like animals. Humans, too."

"I look like a bacteria."

Even though this is the third year I've gone through IDDS, I'm still surprised by how much I've learned. Every year it becomes richer. After the first year, I was ecstatic. After the second year I was depressed and burnt out. (More responsibilities, more stress.) After this year, I feel burnt out, but content, and excited about the future of IDDS. In summer 2010, IDDS will be in Colorado, collaborating with Paul Hudnut and Brian Wilson at the Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise program at Colorado State University. The focus will be to take technologies developed over the past 3 IDDS's and build business plans and strategies for dissemination to take them forward. In 2011, IDDS will likely return to Ghana.

Finally, a few more random stories about Ghana:

On the first village visit, the Offuman group arrived late at night, crawled out of the vans after a tightly-packed, bumpy, 4-hour ride, and was immediately attacked by army ants. Army ants like to run up your legs as high as they can before they bite you. Which is both hilarious and tragic. It's happened to me once before...when I was in the middle of presenting to Peace Corps Zambia volunteers about drip irrigation and standing in the wrong patch of grass.

The chief of Asampu said our IDDS group was "bringing fun to the village!" That is so cool. We spent a lot of time running around, trying to learn as much as we could by helping women pound fufu, or shell corn, or carry firewood. And playing with kids. Hopscotch, itsy bitsy spider, and learning neat things like this game that all the kids all over Ghana know that involves jumping, kicking, and clapping. I had a lot of practice carrying things on my head, but I'll never be as graceful as a Ghanaian woman.

Amy Smith named me as a co-founder of IDDS during the opening ceremony. That's very generous of her. I was mostly in the right place at the right time to help out when IDDS started forming in her mind. The incredible vision and talent to find the resources to make it happen were 100% Amy Smith. This summer I realized that Amy is an entrepreneur right down to her bones-- she builds these grand visions of what she wants to do, and then she has an incredible talent for exciting people to be passionate about building those visions with her. Amy also has a knack for convincing anyone to cheerfully do anything. "Hey guys, I know you want an opportunity to practice your hands-on skills, there's going to be a great easel-making party in the parking lot in 15 minutes!"

Ghana has a high degree of entrepreneurship. Seems like everyone and their grandma is selling something by the road or in the markets. There's also a high number of packaged products made in Ghana -- tomato paste, peanut butter, yogurt, water sachets, etc. I was also delighted to find that it's a Ghanaian practice to "dash" - add in something extra. For example, if you agree to buy a bag of tomatoes for 1 cedi, it's very likely that the vendor will also throw in a few extra free tomatoes after you close the deal.

Lady selling 7 different kinds of cooking oil made from palm nuts, ground nuts, coconuts, vegetable oil...

Everything is late in Ghana -- it's common for hired buses or catered meals to be 1-2 hours late. All the time "wasted" while waiting for things that should have happened hours ago has the unexpected benefit of tons of casual conversations with other IDDS folk. I feel like I met more people and know them a little better than I have in past years.

In the villages, I was quite surprised to see a high number of LED flashlights, powered by cheap Chinese batteries. I've always heard "The poor use a lot of kerosene. They should be using LED lighting, which is cheaper and has better quality light. But kerosene is more available and fits their cash flow better, so that's the most popular option." I actually saw very little kerosene use in villages, although it seemed to be a more common choice among street vendors in the city. Turns out 1 coke bottle worth of kerosene (300 mL) costs 1 cedi (about US $0.75) and lasts for about 3 days in a kerosene lantern. However, 4 cheap D-cell batteries cost 1.2 cedis and last for a month. Light for 3 days vs 30 days for roughly the same cost.

When visitors come to Ghanaian villages, it's customary to greet the chief, who will always ask "What is your mission?"

Medase - the Twi word for thank you - literally means, "I lay myself before you."