Student engineers bring solar energy and clean water to Ugandan village

April 27, 2011

By Marisa Simmons
Course 1 Sophomore

Ddegeya, Uganda, a community of about 1,000 people spread over five square kilometers, relies on a single pond and one working well for water. The people there have no electricity and limited access to healthcare, because the local clinic faces the same constraints as the community. 

The Engineers Without Borders (EWB) MIT chapter has worked with the Engeye Health Clinic in Ddegeya since 2008, and in summer 2010, EWB MIT made its third trip to Ddegeya. This trip was the first large-scale implementation of the EWB plans and it was highly successful in helping the community make small steps toward improving access to water and power. But much remains to be done.  

At MIT, Engineers Without Borders works in two teams to address the main problems of the community: energy and water. 

Energy team

During the 2009-2010 school year, the energy team worked on a project to electrify the Engeye Health Clinic. Before this, the clinic had operated on a few hundred watts of power supplied by two small solar panels. Through a donation from British Petroleum, EWB MIT secured six large solar panels for the clinic, and during the summer 2010, the team rewired all the clinic buildings to accommodate the panels. The students also installed a data logging system that sends weekly updates to EWB members at MIT so they can monitor how much power the panels provide. The panels currently provide 1.4 kilowatts of electricity and are able to support a refrigerator containing vaccines, a microscope and additional lighting for extending the clinic hours beyond daylight. 

People in Ddegeya often use Eucalyptus wood for heat and cooking, but these non-native, fast-growing trees use too much groundwater to be a sustainable source of fuel over time. In summer 2011, the energy team will provide an alternative by showing people how to make charcoal from banana leaves, corn cobs and other agricultural waste. The waste material can be ground and bound with ground casava or banana peel, then molded and burned to create a charcoal that burns very hot, so not much is needed for cooking and heating. 

Water team

Currently the clinic spends much of its budget buying clean water. The EWB water team built a sand filter for the clinic but needed a different option at the community level, because sand is difficult to acquire. Instead, solar water purification, SODIS, was selected for the rest of the community. This simple technique involves placing a clear bottle of water in direct sunlight for six hours. The combined effect of UV radiation and heat kills bacteria in clear water. EWB also experimented with moringa olifera, a local plant with antibacterial properties that can kill some levels of bacteria. However, EWB wants to do further study before introducing purification with moringa to the Ddegeya community.

Last summer, EWB members worked with local representatives to determine a good location for a new 10,000 liter rainwater harvesting tank. Community members insisted that the tank be located at the house of a trustworthy family and not at a school or other more public location where people wouldn't be around to watch over it all the time. A local contractor helped EWB build the tank and donated his services. The community donated bricks for the tank and supplied food for people who helped build it.

The new rainwater tank helps alleviate the water-carrying burden for people in one section of the village. To expand the project, EWB will work summer 2011 on household-level rainwater catchment systems that will be much cheaper than plastic or brick tanks, making them affordable for individual households. Because rainwater is not always clean, another project will be to hold water purification workshops to teach Ddegeyeans how to use chlorine and SODIS to clean the water. </