Engineering and Business

Well, since its the middle of exams, most of the work has been grounded for now. But knowing me, I’m still hard at it, trying to keep things moving forward! A few months ago, the project took a dramatic turn into a completely new direction and to be honest, this was quite difficult to cope with.

Adaptability

Well, remember the township caterers, cooking food using treated wood that was potentially making them really sick???   We had initially wanted to implement a biogas digester: a huge, expensive device that would decompose organic waste into a rich sludge (to use for gardening) and feed off methane gas for cooking! But for a bunch of very good reasons, we went with high-efficiency stoves instead!

         Context
Traditional method of cooking using treated timber

Now these nifty things are just great, using ridiculously little wood to make a variety of foods and being light and portable! The best part is this: They are CHEAP! Well, a lot cheaper than a biodigester would have been! So we were all very excited because this would mean that our budget allowed us to could reach out to more than one trader. Way more than one! And this changed the ball game entirely. This wasn’t the only thing that changed though. A ton of papers and research done on technology deployment suggested that we DIDN’T hand out stoves for free. This causes dependencies and the technologies not being properly looked after or resold almost immediately! If a person has invested in something, they are way more likely to want to keep it and use it!

Understanding Motivations

So now we were talking about things like subsidization policies and micro-finance…We looked at a more holistic approach to the impact we wanted to make, offering the traders business skills training, pitched at their level and actively uplifting them while tacking the health issues at the same time! My mind reeled as I thought of all the amazing possibilities this new approach could bring, and for the first time, things were really starting to look sustainable(remembering that this is a pilot project for this type of intervention!)

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There was just one little problem with all of this..No, actually it was a huge big problem! This was an Engineers Without Borders project, run and managed by engineering students, supervised by engineering lecturers, operating in an engineering capacity! But what we needed to do was develop a business model to market the stoves, invest and manage a micro-finance scheme and run business-skills training workshops! SAY WHAT? Not only did my engineering colleagues not have an interest in these things, they didn’t have the background or skill-set to be able to move forward on this!

(Let me just add in here that a major learning from this project has been this: when delegating work to people, you should ask two questions. Does she/ he have the capacity (skills/ personality) to perform this task? Does this person want to do this task? And believe me, its the second one that is way more important!)

Strengths

So after yapping about business and asking about business and reading about business, and begging my project team to read/ talk/ ask about business I finally had to admit that I was really making no progress. The powers that be were also putting massive pressure on me from above to get a move on. Thesis hand-in was looming and I was running out of time! It was time for a change, and quick.

So I decided to contact SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise), UCT. Luckily I knew one of the organisation’s leaders through Global Citizens who was more than happy to introduce me to the head of Projects for SIFE, UCT.

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Well, I’m happy to say that they were quite excited about the project…and agreed to help where they can (which we all are pretty uncertain of still, but I’m hoping we’ll clear that all up soon!)

Collaboration

Who are SIFE? Well, SIFE is an international organization that seeks to link business students with projects and mentors in order to create a better and more sustainable world…

Hmmm, why does this sound so familiar? Oh yes, EWB does exactly the same thing, but with engineering students! Wow, yay, how exciting! I cant wait to start working with these guys!

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