Khanjan Mehta 2016-02-26 23:59:05
Author’s Note: Reading Resource magazine’s two special issues on “Feeding the World in 2050” reinforced a deep sense of respect for agricultural and biological engineers and a pride in the engineering profession. I was impressed, humbled, and felt somewhat guilty about not spending more time understanding the contributions of my colleagues in agricultural and biological engineering. When people think about engineering, they usually don’t think about food production; they think about cool gizmos, fast cars, and space shuttles. And yet, thousands of ag and bio engineers are striving and innovating on the frontlines of global food security. Therein lies an opportunity to contribute to the National Academy of Engineering’s mission of changing the perception of the engineering profession. ASABE member Terry Howell, Jr., while Society president, emphasized the need to be globally collaborative and work across disciplines and cultures to find game-changing solutions. He challenged us to think about how we should prepare the next generation of engineers who will lead us into the future with a global population of nine billion and beyond. Based on a decade of experience building and leading an academic program in Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) at The Pennsylvania State University, where ASABE Fellow Paul Heinemann serves as Department Head of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, I share with Resource readers my program, a case study of a social venture, and my candid thoughts on how to prepare a cadre of globally competent engineers, social innovators, and problem-solvers. The Penn State HESE program engages students and faculty in the rigorous research, design, field-testing, and launch of technology-based social enterprises. HESE ventures range from low-cost greenhouses and solar food dryers to telemedicine systems and low-cost biomedical devices. HESE teams, composed of students, faculty, and external partners, systematically advance ventures over multiple years with aspirations for large-scale commercialization and dissemination. These ventures are completely embedded in a series of five courses: Social Entrepreneurship, Projects in Humanitarian Engineering, Design for Developing Communities, HESE Fieldwork Experience, and HESE Reflection and Research Dissemination. Half the students in HESE are engineering students, while the other half come from every other college— from agricultural sciences to liberal arts and health and human development. Over half the students are women, a compelling number for engineering and entrepreneurship, both fields with poor gender equity. Alongside the social ventures, students work on original publishable research projects that strengthen their ventures by ensuring that they have an evidence-based and data-driven approach. Affordable greenhouses, for example HESE ventures encompass two overlapping sectors: food value chains (FVCs) and global health. A flagship HESE venture related to FVCs involves affordable greenhouses (AGs). Greenhouses can help farmers increase their yields and improve their livelihoods while reducing spoilage and furthering food security. When used correctly, and by timing the market, greenhouses can increase annual yields tenfold while reducing water consumption by 30% to 70% compared to open-air farming. Most greenhouses sold in sub-Saharan Africa are designed for commercial farmers and are too large and expensive for smallholder farmers and small agro-enterprises. Such greenhouses are metal structures with typical dimensions of 8 m × 15 m and cost upwards of $3,000 (in East Africa) or $6,000 (in West Africa). In 2010, in response to several requests from farmer cooperatives and agricultural research institutions in East Africa, HESE students and faculty set out to design AGs that can be built by two people in two days with materials costing less than $350. These AGs are made from locally sourced materials with the exception of the glazing (a specialized plastic that covers the structure), which needs to be imported. The target return on investment was within two crop cycles with appropriate market timing. After field-testing approximately ten greenhouses in different climatic conditions and supply chain scenarios in Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda, the technology was licensed to a for-profit company in Kenya (Mavuuno Greenhouses) in 2012. This license gave Mavuuno the right to manufacture and sell the AGs in ten East African countries. HESE teams helped Mavuuno Greenhouses establish and streamline operations as well as establish partnerships to facilitate access to capital and agricultural extension support. Subsequently, in 2013, the technology was licensed to a social enterprise in Cameroon (Greenhouse Ventures, Ltd.) with six neighboring countries in its territory. In 2014, in collaboration with World Hope International, and with funding support from the USAID Securing Water for Food Program, a social enterprise called GRO Greenhouses was established in Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Zambia, and other countries. Efforts are underway to establish similar enterprises that manufacture and sell greenhouses in Cambodia, Burkina Faso, and Senegal over the next year. Across the lifecycle of the venture, the objective has always been to build independent organizations, structures, systems, and processes to get AGs to enterprising farmers to bolster local food security while improving livelihoods. While many faculty members and administrators view HESE, and similar programs, as a mechanism to develop soft skills (and meet ABET outcomes), that is not the raison d’être of the program. HESE exists, and strives, to address global development challenges while preparing a cadre of social innovators and sustainable development professionals. Several students pursue Fulbright scholarships or service programs like Teach for America and Peace Corps to get additional field experience (and earn graduate degrees) before entering the workforce. A large number of students, and almost all of the highly engaged students, pursue graduate school, medical school, or law school. HESE students are pursuing an extremely wide range of non-traditional career paths, ranging from launching social ventures (e.g., low-cost feminine hygiene products, solar monitoring, and data analytics for the PV market) to repairing obstetric fistulas as qualified surgeons, to improving rural supply chains, to consulting with the World Food Program and Clinton Health Access Initiative. Over the past decade, HESE ventures, led primarily by undergraduate students, have collectively impacted the lives of several million people across several countries. In addition, over 110 peer-reviewed articles have been published in journals and conference proceedings, the vast majority with undergraduate students as lead authors. Five keys Across the myriad venture failures and the few humble successes, we have learned umpteen lessons on opportunity identification, technology development, equitable collaboration, venture creation, and systematic evaluation. In response to venture needs, the educational aspects of the program have evolved over the years. There are five critical aspects of HESE’s educational and entrepreneurial ecosystem that distinguish it from other community-engaged programs. Highly multi-disciplinary student and faculty teams. The kinds of challenges that we seek to solve are exceptionally complicated, and it is inconceivable that a bunch of engineers sitting around a table will be able to understand and solve them. Innovation happens at the convergence of concepts, disciplines, and epistemologies; at the convergence of cultures and countries; at the convergence of learning, research, and engagement; and with a convergence of partners. Radical innovation, the kind of step-change thinking that changes the world, stems from radical collaboration. Such collaboration must go beyond agricultural engineers working with mechanical engineers. Instead, agricultural engineers need to be comfortable working with social scientists, business professionals, chemists, philosophers, and also with people with little or no formal education. Emphasis on sustainable and scalable solutions. When we engage with communities in low and middle income countries (LMICs), the goal of our collaborative efforts should be sustainable impact. Sustainability, in this context, implies that the solution must be technologically appropriate, environmentally benign, culturally acceptable, and economically sustainable. Some of the biggest problems in the world are problems of scale. You can address challenges around food security and/or energy for 10, 50, or 10,000 people. But if you have 3 million refugees without food, and you’re trying to find a solution, you have to think about scale from day one. The business, implementation, and scale-up strategies cannot be afterthoughts; they have to be developed and executed in conjunction with the technological solution. A market-centric implementation approach. Trusted local partners bring complementary resources to the table and increase the probability of solutions to achieve impact. Partners could be U.N. or government agencies, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, or small community-based organizations. When working in developing countries, private sector actors are considered antithetical to the social outcomes of the project and are seldom engaged by university groups. However, private sector actors bring capital, business expertise, and incentive structures that help achieve economies of scale much faster. The private sector offers the most practical pathway to sustain and scale technology ventures. While private sector actors prioritize the economic bottom line, they are increasingly balancing it with the social and environmental bottom line. Integration of scholarly research and publication. As programs like HESE strive for legitimacy, efficacy, and impact, engaging students in original, rigorous, institutionapproved, and publishable research can bolster student learning and strengthen ventures. While the knowledge created over the venture lifecycle is less likely to be generalizable, it is often transferrable to innovators working on similar challenges in other contexts. Publications serve as tangible outputs of students’ efforts and help them stand out to future employers, prestigious fellowships, and graduate schools. Finally, rigorous research and publication can collectively transform this exciting field into a vibrant and respected global community of engaged scholars and problem-solvers. Focus on execution. Good intentions and passion are not enough. Any student traveling to a developing country for the first time is going to have a life-changing experience. If “delivering” a prototype or a PowerPoint presentation to a group of farmers actually solved the problem, the world would be a very different place. Practitioners, academic and otherwise, who have spent decades in the field, know that the technology is a small component of the solution. A wide range of political, cultural, social, economic, and human factors need to be overcome before a technology product has a tangible, measurable social impact. The technology is 1% (okay, let’s make it 10%); the other 90% is implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and pivoting, pivoting, pivoting. The real challenge is in the execution, getting the job done in the field in a harmonious manner. And this is exactly what we need to teach students—how to get things done. Leading the way With a human-centered worldview, agricultural and biological engineers (and biomedical engineers) are particularly positioned to be leaders in global sustainable development. We can live without cars and electronics, but we cannot live without food. Agricultural engineers receive a dynamic, field-based education that encourages working with farmers, industry, governments, and other stakeholders. Finally, ag and bio engineering student enrollments tend to be smaller and faculty/student ratios tend to be higher than in other engineering disciplines, such as electrical and mechanical engineering. By systematically integrating learning, research, and entrepreneurial engagement, faculty can work shoulder to shoulder with undergraduate and graduate students to produce a cadre of innovative engineers and problem- solvers who can work in the lab, in the field, and across the world, to deliver impact. Khanjan Mehta, Director, Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) Program, and Assistant Professor of Engineering Design, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, USA, email@example.com.
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