Elizabethtown Students ‘Recharge’ Over Winter Break in West Africa
January 7, 2014   //   By:   //   Real-world Learning
group of e-town students and Kurt DeGoede in gambia in 2011

Kurt DeGoede with students and village residents from an earlier trip to The Gambia.

A group of Elizabethtown business and engineering majors, along with faculty mentor, Dr. Kurt DeGoede, are spending part of the Winter Break in Republic of The Gambia as part of an on-going project to develop and launch sustainable, social business. The goal is to provide affordable, solar-powered cell phone chargers to residents of an area devoid of readily available power outlets.

Senior international business major Danni Qiao’s description of the limited electricity perhaps best captures the very nature of their Gambian adventure.

“During the night, the whole village is completely dark. You cannot even see your own hand,” she wrote in an email update. “But, because of no power, the stars are very shiny, like diamonds on black velvet.”

While there is certainly celestial beauty in complete darkness, the lack of light—more specifically, power—also poses an issue. These Elizabethtown College students, guided by Kurt DeGoede, an associate professor in the Department of Engineering and Physics, are working to establish a sustainable business plan that would help rural residents cope better with the lack of power.

During the night, the whole village is completely dark.” — Qiao

There are not many industries that aren’t touched by technology; the cell phone is an important communication and commerce tool even for rural farmers. They can check the current rates for crops to ensure they are getting a fair price from buyers. But residents of some rural Gambian villages must walk to the nearest generator, about two miles—there and back—to charge their mobile devices. Not only is there a lengthy walk but also a fee that, on average, is about 10 percent of a typical weekly income. (Watch a VIDEO about this, here.)

Starting in the 2012-2013 academic year, a few teams of Elizabethtown College engineering students worked to develop and test a prototype solar-powered device—a low-cost photovoltaic (PV) mobile phone charger—that would fully charge phones right from their rural locations. A team of business students are in the midst of developing a sustainable social business plan that will, ultimately, be turned over to a local Gambian nonprofit that will bring the product to market. While the project work—supplies and such—is partially funded by the College, the students foot the bill for most of the abroad trip, themselves. (Learn more about a campaign, Recharging the Gambia, to help fund this project.)

Getting the Lay of the Land

Since their arrival in the Gambia on Jan. 4, students—including Qiao, Duc “Danny” Truyen Dam and Anthony Fraccica—shared daily email updates with project sponsors, relatives, friends and College faculty and staff members. Qiao, an international student hailing from China, wrote about a venture into a village to buy supplies, such as flip-flops and flashlights and, then, she talked about unwinding after a full day.

“We just had dinner: shrimp with beans. While I’m writing this email, Dr. DeGoede is making his tea; Anthony is helping clean the dishes; and Danny is chilling. Everyone is doing very well, and nobody had any bad reactions to the food or weather. So don’t worry about us.”

Fraccica, a senior mechanical engineering major, took a moment to say, playfully, he hopes everyone back home is enjoying the snow while he is relishing in the winter high of “a chilly 90 degrees.”

“Too bad I forgot my coat,” he wrote. He went on to say how he enjoys the local fruit, especially the oranges, and that he and his fellow world travelers enjoyed a hike.

“The forest was filled with tropical birds and massive trees. … We arrived at probably the largest tree I have ever seen.”

Qiao and Dam are international students at Elizabethtown, but in The Gambia, they, like the rest of the visiting group, are experiencing a new culture together. Fraccica and Qiao shared in their updates that village children refer to them as “tuba” or white person.

“…even though Danny and I are not very ‘white’, we are ‘tubas’ in their eyes,” she wrote.

Getting down to business

A trip abroad would not be complete without sightseeing and exploration, but the primary purpose of the visit is to research. DeGoede and the students had a lengthy meeting with their partners at the University of the Gambia (UTG). Dam, a senior international business major and international student from Vietnam, said the project’s business team acquired imperative information about “target customers, promotion and distribution channels.”

What could we do to make the economic development process quick and sustainable?” – Dam

Prior to the College’s Winter Break, DeGoede met with some members of the project team—including students who aren’t traveling to Gambia, but helped create the plan and travel itinerary. Dam was eager to do market research and his mentor said, “Getting there in person will foster that long list of questions.” At the meeting, Qaio said she was looking forward to the marketing aspect too—getting the villagers’ thoughts on the product and the price point. Both students, now in The Gambia, are excited to get answers.

In his update, Dam explained that UTG students are going to conduct market research to help understand the habits of potential customers. And, according to Dam, the project’s technical team demonstrated the product to the UTG team and created a survey that would track the function of the proposed product. Throughout the rest of the trip, Dam is hopeful they “will also have a chance to research the availability of necessary materials for our product in the local market.”

The trip already has affected Dam, specifically some panhandling—and reinforced the project’s mission.

“I was troubled by the kids asking for things from us. … It makes me think about the old saying about the fish and the fishing rod and the main purpose of economic development and poverty reduction,” he said. “What could we do to make the economic development process quick and sustainable?”

According to reports from the first few days, students are enjoying the collaboration with UTG students and faculty members and the experience of being in a new part of the world.

The birds are wild. Children giggle. People are friendly.

“I am impressed by the hospitality of The Gambians. People greet us with a big smile even though they never met us before. Now, I understood why The Gambia is called ‘the smiling coast’,” said Dam.

Perhaps some of its residents will smile a bit wider after the Recharging the Gambia project is fully powered up.

Learn more—or support—this project.

About the Author :

E.A. (Elizabeth) Harvey is the communications manager and news editor at Elizabethtown College. She has worked in the Office of Marketing and Communications since 2008, after more than two decades as a newspaper feature writer. She holds a bachelor's degree in corporate communication from Elizabethtown College.

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