If you happened to be at Wangari Gardens in Washington, DC, on a certain Saturday last spring, you might have been witness to an unusual scene: A group of people were intently pouring buckets of a sludgy brown liquid into blue 55 gallon drums. The liquid suddenly comes out faster than expected, and some of it splashes on the face of one member of the group. There is a pause for a moment or two before the entire group -- including the recipient of the overflow -- erupts into laughter.
It takes a special person to be able to laugh at himself when he gets a little horse manure on his face, but as Rahul Mitra knows, that is the best available input to convert to energy for cooking via the biodigester they were seeding. Mitra and Caroline Angelo, who was also there that day, are the co-directors of Hatch International’s BioD team, and the exercise at Wangari was one of many tests they’ll conduct in an effort to perfect the project’s biodigester technology.
Caroline Angelo hails from New Jersey and got her BS in Electrical Engineering from Rutgers University. After college she moved to Washington, DC, and began working as a patent examiner at the US Patent and Trademark Office. She quickly learned that while patent law was not for her, the DC area was, so she took a job designing ships for the US Navy, and has been doing that ever since.
For “fun” Angelo decided to get an MS in Electrical Engineering from George Mason University. One of her graduate courses involved clean and renewable energy, and she became interested in both the technologies themselves and the impact of energy availability in communities. After grad school she was looking for something to do with her newly found free time and came across volunteer opportunities with Vort Port International (now Hatch International) that were a good fit for both her skills and passion.
“In addition to the sustainable energy aspect, I loved the idea of connecting with far-flung communities to solve problems that affect public health and the environment,” Angelo explains.
She became a co-director of BioD in 2013 and has found that the job requires her to wear many hats. In a typical week she may be preparing a pitch for donors, adding content to the project’s website, creating AutoCAD drawings for the patenting process, or trying to find a meeting time that works with all the team members' busy and varied schedules.
Rahul Mitra grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His passion for service was instilled by his parents, who taught him to see beyond the poverty in Bangladesh and identify the root causes. He and his father (who is also an engineer) have been working on several development projects including setting up a computer center in a school in a very remote part of the country.
Mitra moved to the US seven years ago and received a BS in Electrical Engineering and a BA in Economics from The University of Texas at Austin. It was a trip to Mexico with Engineers Without Borders while he was a student that cemented Mitra’s interest in international development.
“I felt at home in the rural community of Jaboncitos Chicos, and realized that human aspirations were all the same, irrespective of where you are,” Mitra shares. “I also discovered that I stand to make a tangible impact in the lives of others.”
Hatch isn’t the only group Mitra shares his expertise with -- he also has or currently is volunteering with Engineers Without Borders (where he is also a project lead) and Hand in Health, and recently joined the Disaster Response Team for ShelterBox.
“Pretty much all I do lies between the nexus of engineering innovation and rural development,” Mitra says. “I am particularly interested in working with rural communities in designing sustainable solutions that are economical and make use of appropriate technology.”
At present Mitra is pursuing a Masters in Global Human Development in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He arranged a partnership between Georgetown and BioD, which led to BioD winning the NCIIA award. He has traveled to over 35 countries, speaks five languages (Spanish, French, English, Hindi, and Bengali), and is working on a sixth (Arabic).
One of the main principles of human-centered design is to design the solution close to the problem, so the co-directors try to make the BioD project a truly collaborative effort between volunteers and students in both the US and Madagascar. Students from the University of Antananarivo collaborate with students from Georgetown University, and DC engineers collaborate with engineers and volunteers in Madagascar. The impact of these collective efforts go far beyond BioD, and has been an intercultural learning process for all.
“I realize that the engineering problem is perhaps the easiest aspect of the project. It’s making the sociocultural component of using biogas for cooking that will be the hard part,” says Mitra. “This can only be done by understanding the day-to-day decisions made by rural families in Madagascar, through an education campaign that establishes the need and importance of sustainable fuel, and engaging the stakeholder in all aspect of decision-making, including design.”
The team is currently preparing for a piloting trip to Madagascar in August where they plan to set up biodigesters in Ampefy, a rural community 90 minutes outside of the capital Antananarivo, and monitor their performance. The group has conducted some educational sessions and surveys with the villagers through one of BioD’s partners, the Rotaract Club in Madagascar, but recognizes the benefit of speaking directly with the potential customers and end users of the product.
“By the time I joined Hatch the BioD prototype was mostly complete, so I’m really looking forward to testing it and tweaking the design based on the outcomes and feedback we receive,” says Angelo. “We recently brought on a group of students from Georgetown who have international development backgrounds, and they’ve already brought a lot of informed ideas and insights into our project. By the end of this year we should have a good idea of whether our project is viable in Madagascar, and if so make any improvements to the design and scale it up from there.”
Hatch International’s BioD team has developed a low-cost and effective biodigester that converts organic waste into methane gas which can then be used as a cooking fuel in biodiversity-threatened nations such as Madagascar. The ultimate goal is to have a self-sustaining social enterprise run by a community within the next two years. For more information or to help support the project please click here.
This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Hatch International.