MSc SELECT Grand Challenge project in Zimbabwe: the experience of a lifetime!

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Ward 10, Honde Valley, Zimbabwe

Energy has a big role in the development of communities, nations and cultures as a whole. It’s a basic evolutionary need, and one that everybody will need access to in order to develop and grow. However energy access MUST be accomplished without jeopardizing the environment. Walking this thin line to find the perfect sustainable solution – in terms of social, economic and environmental aspects – is exactly what the Grand Challenge Projects are all about.

These real-life education projects give MSc SELECT students unique insights into the challenges and solutions for future energy markets and systems, and often involve inter-continental collaboration. This year’s Grand Challenge Projects take the students not only to Europe, but also Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. We spoke with Luigi Ghiani, 1st year MSc SELECT student at KTH, to hear his story about one of this exciting project.

 The Honde Valley project : setting the scene

The Honde Valley project is commissioned by Fortune Development Centre (FDC) based in Samaringa, Honde Valley, Zimbabwe, with a counterpart in Sweden – and is also closely monitored by SWECO. FDC aims to improve the living conditions of the people living in the Honde Valley – and this Grand Challenge project is a great way to put some fresh ideas on the task!

Luigi Ghiani, MSc SELECT student

Luigi Ghiani, MSc SELECT student

Luigi explains, “When it comes to energy in developing countries, the technology is not the only focus of the energy engineer: several other skills play a main role to properly understand how to find feasible solutions. The solutions to these problems cannot be understood in a traditional course: the project gave us is a 360 degrees sight and experience. Some problems are not common to the daily European routine, but are affecting the world, and several companies are directly involved to tackle them. NGOs, policy makers, International Organizations but also traditional companies working in developing countries need engineers with these kinds of experiences.”

In the early stages of the project, two teams (one from KTH, one from UPC) developed their competing proposals with very little information, so right away their resourcefulness came into play – looking up for similar cases, attending conferences or contacting experts in sustainable development.

Off to Zimbabwe!

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Traditional kitchen house in Zimbabwe, with closed roof and scarce ventilation; Photographer: Luigi Ghiani

Due to the remoteness of the area, the initial information was not enough for a detailed proposal. A field trip onsite was needed to gather as much information as possible about the area, the water and grid system – and also to see how the community itself would respond to external intervention. “The trip to Zimbabwe was an incredible experience for all of us”, Luigi says humbly. “Living in this village together and only having a limited time to collect information – we found the best way was for both teams to cooperate completely and share all findings.”

Luigi’s team focused on general needs of the community and how to improve their quality of life, along with the access to sustainable and clean energy – such as lighting (battery charging stations), a community biogas digester, pot-in-pot clay refrigerators, shared energy services in the community building and improved clay cooking stoves. “We had to always take into account that the traditions and habits of the local people had to be respected.”

hike_PoYSELECTWhen asked to share one of his favourite personal experiences from the trip, his face lights up as he tells the story of visiting the local water source. “After trekking for an hour and half up the mountain, we arrived at the spring which delivers water to the villages – a holy location to the locals, deserving a lot of respect. When we arrived, we met the ‘medium of the mountain’, a mystic old woman who only spoke Shona (the local language). We kneeled and prayed with her to ask the permission of the spirits to visit the area. The tradition says that if you don’t follow this ritual, the spirits will kidnap you. We thought it was best to stick to the rules – and it was a very interesting and unique experience!”

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Water point: water is leaking all around it ; Photographer: Leon Haupt

The team is now about to return to Zimbabwe to look into details the specific solutions chosen: suppliers, costs, materials, logistics and everything that is needed to make a realistic and accurate final proposal. They will also perform some measurements: for example, in cooperation with the Land and Water Resources Engineering Department of KTH to measure the water quality, to understand if their solutions are sufficient to guarantee safe and drinkable water to the population. “Each step puts us closer to achieving our goals for this area – we look forward to going back!”

Where might the MSc SELECT programme take you?

The previous cycles show us that the ideas and solutions that come out of these projects are real winners – such as the Collective Power Platform. It’s fascinating to think that during the course of your studies you would have such an opportunity to not only take your engineering degree (and life skills in general!) to the next level, but also to change lives around the globe. The MSc SELECT programme is all about an education that is not just technical– but also in line with the business side to help students develop highly valued soft skills that make a huge difference in the professional world.

“When I chose the MSc SELECT programme, I was expecting a different way of teaching energy engineering. In fact, during my bachelor studies in Italy I had a very theoretical approach to the subject, missing the practical skills and the links to real applications and companies – which are necessary to be successful, regardless which career you choose. In this programme, I have the chance to learn about innovative technologies, in particular renewables, taught by researchers and experts in various subjects. But more than that, I have the opportunity to develop teamwork skills, to work in a highly intercultural environment, to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. I would particularly like to thank Professor Jeevan Jayasuriya, also MSc SELECT Programme Director, who made this particular project possible with great effort of time and patience – and his many suggestions and ideas.”

Luigi shares his final thoughts on The Honda Valley project, just one of the many engaging project in the programme, “I consider this project one of the greatest experiences of my life. Something totally unique and completely different from any type of learning I’ve experienced before. I have always wanted to contribute somehow in developing countries, using my knowledge as an engineer – because I believe that knowledge, science and experience are the keys to solve our world’s problems. For the first time I feel that, together with my team, I am a part of a possible change and improvement.”