Building permanent paths out of poverty
August 16, 2016
David Lambert, a structural engineer in Arup’s Los Angeles office, has spent several years volunteering with the Mbesese Initiative for Sustainable Development (MISD), a nonprofit focused on reducing poverty in rural East Africa. He recently returned from Tanzania after securing the national government’s approval to build a new vocational school outside the town of Same.
We spoke to Lambert about the project.
MISD’s overall goal is to reduce poverty. How did you decide to build a trade school?
Well, MISD’s goal is to establish routes out of poverty, not just reduce it. This distinction may seem trivial, but it’s quite important.
Many of us in MISD have worked with various charitable organizations in the past, helping out on different projects in East Africa. We saw the benefits of the work we were doing but also became acutely aware that these benefits had an expiration date.
A lot of groups take an aid-based approach to reducing poverty — essentially handing out the goods and services impoverished people lack. These programs can save lives, definitely: to use a very basic example, distributing food to those facing starvation. But unless you’re constantly providing food, eventually these people will face starvation again. And even then, you’re addressing a symptom of poverty without solving the underlying problem.
We also saw that the more specialized nature of many charities limited the extent of the benefits they could provide. Poverty is an extremely complex phenomenon, and addressing just one aspect of it can only do so much.
Poverty is an extremely complex phenomenon, and addressing just one aspect of it can only do so much.
For example, I’ve worked with medical charities that do incredible work. But a lack of access to medical care isn’t the only reason impoverished people face higher incidence of disease. They get sick because of unsanitary living conditions, malnutrition, unsafe water, exposure to the elements… the list goes on. So providing medical care can treat them in the short term, but it doesn’t stop the problem.
We aren’t the only ones who have recognized these shortcomings in the charity sector, of course. The World Bank has identified this set of issues as a serious challenge in reaching the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. But we still thought that with our combined experience and skills, we could bring something new to the table.
With all this in mind, we set out to focus on long-term benefits that lift people out of poverty for good. This has led us to engage in a diverse field of activities addressing a broad range of challenges impoverished people face, focusing on building human capabilities rather than distributing goods and services. This approach also enables us to identify intersections between these different challenges and find opportunities for new solutions.
So back to your question: why a trade school? Education is something that people carry with them their whole lives and can use to expand their opportunities, to meet their needs. Again, obviously this is not a new idea, but we’re taking a somewhat different approach. In rural East Africa, most of the attention has been placed on expanding access to primary and secondary school. This is very important, and there has been some very notable success.
In Tanzania, the national net primary enrollment rate has reached 97%. Enrollment in secondary school is quickly growing as well. But access to higher education has improved very little — enrollment rates are still below 4%.
Primary and secondary school are critical to ending poverty, but so is higher education. People in rural East Africa are trying really hard, but they lack the knowledge that can help them reach better outcomes in farming, building, teaching, and so on. This kind of knowledge is gained in institutions like universities, community colleges, and trade schools. There just aren’t enough of these to go around.
So we decided to build a trade school that we’re calling the Same Polytechnic College.
You’ve been working with other Arup engineers as well as Cal Poly students to design the campus. Can you talk about that aspect of the project?
Sure. Design work started with the team at Arup researching the East African context, then progressed to developing goals and principles for the campus design with the wider MISD team. Then students and faculty in the graduate architecture studio at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo [Cal Poly] took this information and began developing conceptual schemes for the campus layout and the design of the buildings.
There’s been an ongoing back and forth between the students and Arup, developing and exploring ideas. The students come from a range of majors — architecture, engineering, construction management, city and regional planning, and landscape architecture — so they bring a lot of different perspectives, some of which aren’t represented in the Arup team working on the project. So it has been a very complementary dynamic. The students really have taken the final product well beyond where Arup could have taken it alone.
Can you tell me about some of the architectural and engineering solutions developed? Which decisions were obvious and which took more thought?
Well, the most obvious was using passive ventilation and natural daylighting in the buildings. The local climate is hot.
We could have installed air-conditioning systems throughout the campus, but these are expensive to buy, require electric power, and need skilled technicians for maintenance and repair — far from ideal for a low-budget rural project. Instead, we’re using building shaping and orientation to create comfortable interior spaces using natural air flow and light.
One decision that was a bit unexpected was our choice to use steel rather than timber framing for the buildings. Timber is widely used in construction in rural East Africa because it’s readily available, lightweight, easy to build with, and relatively inexpensive. It’s also a renewable resource, which fits with the sustainability goals of the project. So it seemed like a no-brainer at first.
But timber is only green when it’s responsibly and sustainably harvested. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in East Africa. MISD has several forestry projects, and the people involved pointed out that Tanzania has one of the world’s worst rates of deforestation. Most of the country’s commercial timber resources have been mismanaged and are essentially exhausted.
Timber is only green when it’s responsibly and sustainably harvested.
Considering the size of this project and the amount of material needed, we eventually settled on using smaller steel sections like tubes and angles to fabricate roof trusses. Steel has its downsides, but when we looked at the broader range of issues it was the better option.
Another design challenge pertains to wastewater. There’s no local infrastructure to handle wastewater from toilets, showers, sinks, or other sources, so it has to be managed on-site. We debated bringing in a packaged processing plant, which we possibly could get donated. But none of this technology is very readily available in this region, so there were concerns: What happens when this breaks? How long is it going to take for someone to come out and fix it? So in the end we decided that this wasn’t an appropriate solution. Instead, our plans involve a system of septic tanks, constructed wetlands, and sand filtration that will separate, recycle, and reuse some wastewater and responsibly dispose of the rest.
We also had to put a lot of thought into solid waste, partially because landfills don’t really exist over there. Most people burn their garbage, including plastic and other toxic substances. We spent a lot of time looking into what the breakdown of trash would be — what could be recycled, what could be done with organic solid waste.
You’re a structural engineer. How did you end up working on a solution for global poverty?
Before I started working for Arup I did a lot of volunteer work in East Africa. In college I did research on alternative construction methods and materials for an AIDS-orphans charity in Kenya that was building a large new facility in a remote part of the country. After graduation I worked on-site for almost a year.
The project was quite large and involved a lot of different elements: a farm, a cattle dairy, several schools, a clinic. So while there I got to work with people from different fields and backgrounds. Even though we worked on different parts of the project, we had shared frustrations. This got us wondering around the dinner table if there was a better way. Eventually these conversations turned into this organization.
What are the backgrounds of the others on the MISD team?
Right now we have people in architecture, engineering, construction, agriculture, forestry, education, business, and economics. But several of us have connections with professional and educational institutions that give us access to an even wider pool of knowledge and expertise. Myself and Arup, for example. Through The Arup Cause, which is an internal funding program designed to help staff members support charitable efforts they’re passionate about, we’ve been able to involve a lot of engineers and consultants with different skill sets. Other institutions involved include the University of Wisconsin, the Woodland Trust, and Cal Poly.
These connections were really the deciding factor in our choosing to establish this organization and go forward with this project. If it was just us as individuals, we’d have had a much more difficult task. That’s partly why the broader approach we’re advocating for is relatively rare: it requires a very diverse team, and a lot of NGOs don’t have that kind of capacity.
What’s next for the project?
We’ve just finalized our arrangements with the government of Tanzania and have settled on a 102-acre site outside the town of Same. Now we need to raise $25,000 to compensate the family that was farming this land. Once we pay we’ll receive the deed, and then we can begin construction. It won’t be full-scale construction at first; we want to build a few smaller test facilities first to validate some of our assumptions and make adjustments as necessary. Those will be used for offices and volunteer housing as we start to develop the site.
The broader approach we’re advocating for is relatively rare: it requires a very diverse team, and a lot of NGOs don’t have that kind of capacity.
Do you have a budget for construction, or will you raise funds piece by piece as the phases proceed?
Piece by piece. That’s another part of that first experimental phase — not just showing that these buildings systems work in the local context, but also working out their real unit cost. There’s not a lot of very reliable information on construction costs for East Africa.
In the best-case scenario, if you go to the campus 10 years from now, what will you see?
You’ll see a very vital and vibrant environment where 1,200 students are engaging in a very different style of learning from what they’re used to, gaining valuable skills that will help their communities address a lot of the most important issues they face.
Questions or comments for David Lambert? Email email@example.com.
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