Computer Science Has the Power to Impact the Lives of the 99 Percent

By Divya Nekkanti

During high school, I looked unquestionably at technology leaders like Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, whose philanthropic foundation aimed to solve every apparent misfortune in the Global South. Even more, I found solace in the “giving back” days that Silicon Valley tech companies employed as a fulfillment of their corporate social responsibility.

But increasingly, no matter where I look–in the world, in my community, within myself–tech and development are misaligned. There seem to be two mutually exclusive avenues of engaging with the world–innovating or giving–the only overlap for which involves donating money to admirable causes or engaging in occasional volunteer service. This dichotomy between the fast-paced, disruptive tech world that doesn’t afford engineers the time to fully understand the complexities of social challenges and the slower-moving development sphere, where the redundancy of approaches and lack of human, financial, and tech capital hinder growth, have become more and more apparent to me in my experiences at Cal.

Perhaps this dichotomy was once not so strong, but as an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) major today there’s a very distinct path you follow. You take onerous math and programming classes, cease at nothing to get accepted into the engineering or business consulting organizations that flood Sproul Plaza in the semester’s first few weeks, and then embark on a toxic pursuit of software engineering internships at Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Amazon, etc. You attend every info session, stand in hour-long lines to talk to a single recruiter, and apply to hundreds of companies without distinction as to why–all because the sole purpose of your “technical” education is to work at the biggest, most profitable software company in the Valley.

Application of knowledge becomes fixated on the destination rather than the journey, and despite going to a school as economically and experientially diverse as Berkeley, you get so lost in the allure of free T-shirts and food, the glitz and glamour, that social problems–even at the campus level–go unnoticed. Despite having few requirements outside the EECS major, the exhaustion from technical courses prompts you to deliberately pursue humanities courses that offer the highest average grade and lowest workload, rather than taking classes that actually pique your interest.

Disillusioned by this herd mentality and eager to explore a multidisciplinary Berkeley education, I decided to pursue a minor in Global Poverty & Practice. Taking on this minor was the best decision I made at Cal, as it is affording me an evaluative lens not only to examine determinants of poverty, but for the first time to critically analyze the bubble I have been living in for my entire life in Silicon Valley. A productive hiatus from my homogenous computer science courses, GPP is allowing me to daily interact with students from a broad array of majors and backgrounds, whose perspectives challenge my own and elevate every classroom discussion.

Yet despite the minor’s longstanding diversity, I see few engineers, even fewer computer scientists, in my GPP classes. At the same time, across campus I see few engineering and computer science students willing to confront the economic misfortune and inequality of access that exist beyond Soda Hall. With my eyes more open than ever been, I can now critically assess a variety of complexities: the tax evasion benefits and occasional alternate agendas behind philanthropic donations; the dependencies that result from inconsistent foreign aid; and the millions of laptops donated by the tech community’s One Laptop Per Child program, which never reached children in need.

Unlike the abundance of engineering courses that posit innovation must be accelerated to be disruptive (thus often fabricating problems to “solve” and oversimplifying ones that already exist), GPP courses are making me careful about my language, as I “practice” how to effectively address people in poverty (rather than naively think I can “serve” them).

Never anticipating the ability to reconcile my passions for tech and development, last summer I intentionally took on two very different internships: one with an NGO that focuses on education, economic empowerment, and equality for women and girls in developing regions; and the other an analytics consulting company.

At the NGO, I actively tried to refrain from imposing my software skills, as I was wary of oversimplifying the problems the nonprofit inwardly faced and outwardly worked on with redundant tech solutions. Yet day after day, the need for tech internally to scale the organization and externally to enrich the organization’s education programs, felt glaringly critical.

My most surprising discovery was the NGO’s high turnover, which appeared to engender bottlenecks like lack of data standardization. As employees came and went on their own volition, they stored years of donor and program information on different online services, in independent accounts, and with inconsistent formats. The irregularities on this scale of data made communication with donors and tracking of scholarship students nearly impossible, with half the incoming mail consisting of emails undeliverable as addressed. Seeing as the NGO was primarily funded by donors, the gravity of mismanaged data heightened by the day.

Even more of a hurdle was the lack of technology for educational programming and outreach. While the organization received Chromebook donations from Google, low electricity in the areas where the NGO work prevented deployment of the laptops. And while the girls finishing high school requested technical curriculum in robotics and web development, there was no one with the bandwidth to structure the programs. Meanwhile, in my second internship at the analytics consulting company, the resources seemed endless. If I didn’t like the size of my Mac, with a few clicks I could instantly order a new one. Unlike at the NGO, where I knew the faces and names of the women my work was directly affecting, working on software projects at a large tech company felt like coding in a black box. I was assured there were huge companies on the other end, transforming their businesses with the firm’s services, but my role in delivering this value was largely ambiguous and concerns were cursorily dismissed.

It was only during my practice at the nonprofit that I began to view challenges of sustaining an NGO and achieving development goals as technical opportunities. Sourcing data from all accounts, I wrote scripts to parse CSVs and standardize entry formats, transitioning the entire organization onto Salesforce’s nonprofit success pack for centralized donor and program management. I researched solar chargers and the historical reception of robotics and web development curricula in the NGO’s target regions, wrote cost/benefit analyses, and developed technologies for later deployment in schools.

With every task I completed and every proposal I pursued, I realized how invaluable technology in the social sector has the potential to be, especially in streamlining internal processes and scaling external facing projects. Connecting the two disparate dots in my life, I have felt fulfilled and inspired. I have realized innovation isn’t solely synonymous with the next iOS update, computer science has the power to impact the lives of the 99 percent, and the “technical vs. nontechnical” mentality we unconsciously employ fails to represent the very multifaceted and interdisciplinary approaches requisite in development.

As an engineer, I have gleaned that it is possible to transcend the stereotypical boundaries of a traditional tech job, that it doesn’t take the philanthropic capital of a billionaire to change the world, and most importantly that I don’t need to compromise my technical background to alter paradigms in the development sector. Instead, I can actionably address the assemblage of social issues that keep me up at night with the skills I learn during the day.

Divya Nekkanti ’20 is a UC Berkeley Electrical Engineering & Computer Science major and a Global Poverty and Practice minor from San Jose, California.

But First, Water

By Morgan Hillenbrand

On a typical day in the village of Mihingoni, Kenya, girls emerge at dawn, traveling down red clay paths against a backdrop of palm trees and corn stalk plants. The beauty of Mihingoni stands in contrast to the tough reality of their lives. These girls—some as young as six years old—are not in school. Today, like all days during the dry season, they will spend hours walking in search of that one element none of us can live without: water.

There is a saying in Swahili: “Maji Yaje Kwanza” which means “water is the first of many things”. The people of Mihingoni—most of whom are subsistence farmers—depend largely on rainwater for survival, but climate variability and long dry seasons continue to stunt crop yields. Low agricultural productivity decreases household income, and increases hunger. Lack of proper water, sanitation and hygiene leads to disease, and Kenya continues to have one of the worst under five mortality rates, globally. Families are forced to choose between sending their girls for water or sending them to school, and they choose water first. This limits the prospects for their future, and the cycle of poverty in Mihingoni continues. Until now.

Ashley Miller—an alumnus of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley—has spent the last five years working with the community of Mihingoni to design solutions that will increase their access to water. Miller first traveled to Mihingoni in 2013 when she and her classmate, Louisa Mwenda, took a seven hour drive from Nairobi to attend a family wedding.

“When I said ‘yes’ to that invitation I had no idea that the course of my life would change forever,” Ashley said. “Once I saw the impact lack of water was having on that community, I knew I had to get involved. I have been working with Louisa, her family, and the community on this issue ever since.”

Miller returned from Kenya, threw herself into fundraising, and one year and $21,000 later she was on a plane heading back to Kenya to implement the Maji Yaje Kwanza project. Determined to build a sustainable, community-led program, Miller and the team collaborated closely with Mihingoni Primary school, and asked local teachers to help her organize a community meeting where they could solicit and hear the thoughts, needs, and ideas of the community first-hand.

“I didn’t want to make any assumptions about what the community needed, or what the solution should be,” Miller said. “The meeting was entirely spoken in KiGiriama, which allowed those most affected by the project to fully express themselves and their needs. We wanted to put the people’s needs at the center of all of our work.”

With just over $20,000, Miller and her team were able to hire 200 people to build and install drip irrigation pipes at the school for a school garden, hand-washing sinks outside of the boys, girls, and teachers’ latrines, two drinking water taps and a water kiosk that serves the entire community. Two 10,000-liter water tanks were provided, ensuring water access even during periods of low rainfall. The crew also created a basin for soapy sink water to be recycled for cleaning latrines. And that wasn’t all.

Maji Yaji Kwanza collaborated with the local municipality to enact a pipeline expansion across 2.5 kilometers, which would build on the work of several World Bank water projects being implemented in the area. But project delays and variable water pressure brought additional challenges, and the provision of water was inconsistent. The community needed to connect a well to existing infrastructure to ensure water provision year-round. By the summer of 2017 the team had hired a geologist, completed a hydrogeological survey, and secured the necessary permits from the Kenyan government to build the well.

“We’ve accomplished so much, learned an incredible amount, and we’re just getting started,” Miller said. “News of our success has spread throughout the region, and that has raised people’s hopes and expectations. We are personally accountable to these communities, and that is what drives us to get this done.”

Maji Yaje Kwanza is currently fundraising with the goal of raising $10,000 to complete construction of the underground well and water pump. Once the project is completed, it will serve roughly 3,000 people.

“I want people to imagine a life where you can’t turn on a tap. Can’t turn on the shower, flush the toilet. A life where you look at your daughter and say, ‘you can’t go to school; we need you to go for water today’. People shouldn’t have to make those types of choices. This is a solvable problem, and we all need to be part of the solution.”

To contribute to Maji Yaje Kwanza through the official UC Berkeley crowdfunding campaign, visit .The current crowdfunding campaign cycle will be live until February 23 at 11:59 p.m. PST. To learn more about how The Blum Center is supporting students to change the world, visit

Blum Center Alumni Take UNLEASH

By Francesca Munsayac

The Blum Center is pleased to announce that three Blum-nominated social innovators and their teams won recognition at UNLEASH, a nine-day-long global development event held in Denmark. Zoe Bezpalko won gold in Urban Sustainability, Jordan Freitas took silver in the Health, while Rachel Voss received bronze in Food. In addition, other outstanding attendees from the Blum Center ecosystem included m-Omulimisa founder Daniel Ninsiima and undergraduate bioengineering student Fanice Nyatigo.

By partnering with UNLEASH, a global non-profit initiative aiming to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Blum Center hopes to help its alumni reach greater heights, supporting their efforts to bring their social ventures to fruition.

Meet the cohort

Zoe Bezpalko’s team: Demolition4Design

Ninsiima is a Michigan State graduate who partnered with colleague and fellow MSU alumni Linlin Liang to develop “m-Omulimisa”, a phone-based platform that increases access to extension services for rural Ugandan farmers by providing critical agricultural information via SMS messaging in a local language.

Since 2015, Bezpalko’s role as an Autodesk’s Design Lead remains crucial to The Blum Center’s partnership with the Autodesk Foundation. Bezpalko has helped infuse our programs with a greater focus on impact design and sustainability, specifically to solve social and environmental challenges.

Freitas is a completing a computer science PhD program at Berkeley while working with a research group called Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER). Freitas’ research concentrates on improving methods of impact analysis and sharing data responsibly.

Nyatigo is an bioengineering student interning at Fletcher Labs, which aims to codify and control biological structures in order to develop ways for therapeutic intervention. Specifically, Nyatigo — under the tutelege of a PhD student — works to combine machine learning concepts and other imaging processing techniques to improve the quality of the image of the biological structures.

Before becoming a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz, Voss worked as a Program Coordinator at the UC Berkeley Blum Center. Now Voss is conducting research that focuses on participatory farmer trials in order to boost yields through improved soil and water management in Senegal.

An Experience of a Lifetime

Rachel Voss’ team: HarvestHub

Bezpalko and her team created Demolition4Design, a database that disseminates information to link designers, developers, manufacturers and engineers. The database will spread knowledge on sustainable solutions while diverting landfill wastes to new markets; ultimately, creating lasting impacts for environmental, economic and social development.

Freitas was one of the makers if Afterain, a free toolkit designed to aid displaced individuals experiencing trauma and other mental health issues through art therapy. In addition, Afterain will sell high-quality notebooks locally and overseas to generate revenue to fund rehabilitation camps.

Through HarvestHub, Voss and her fellow innovators wanted to connect farmers in Tanzania to post-harvest services, such as storage, processing, transportation, and networking to markets. This mobile platform will allow farmers to contract services on demand, which will improve their livelihood and reduce food loss.  

“I would probably never have applied to UNLEASH if the Blum Center hadn’t put it on my radar. I’ve made so many connections to inspiring, passionate people around the world who are now my friends but also potential partners in my future work. I’ve never done anything like UNLEASH before but I am so grateful I had the chance to attend.” said Voss.

Nicole Walter

Nicole helped organize a group of youth to interview and survey families in the community in order to gather information that would help them decide what types of development projects would be useful.

We helped organize a group of youth to interview and survey families in the community in order to gather information that would help us decide what types of development projects would be useful. We are standing in front of the future plans for the community center (internet center, library and salon for capacity building workshops).
Nicole helped organize a group of youth to interview and survey families in the community in order to gather information that would help them decide what types of development projects would be useful. She is standing in front of the future plans for the community center (internet center, library and salon for capacity building workshops).

Major: Architecture

Year of Graduation: 2009

Location and date of Field Experience: Salvador, Brazil (July – August 2008)

Organization: Axis Mundi Design

Project: A participatory design/build project for a marginalized settlement on the outskirts of Salvador

Hometown: Laguna Nigel, CA

Quote: To this day, I feel like I’ve been given so many opportunities because of the minor. I love the fact that everyone has their own academic and professional goals and then finds a way to integrate development work within that framework.

Tell us a story from your practice experience.
I worked with a small group to design and build a public outdoor seating area using a participatory design process. We wanted to involve the community members in every phase of the project — choosing the location, creating the design and constructing the actual project — through this process we really wanted to understand how the project could improve their living environment. After spending time with the community, we saw everyone gravitating towards a beautiful space with a view of the ocean — the kids played games, the women conversed while hanging their laundry, others played music or just enjoyed the view. We noticed that everyone sat on the ground or random pots or boxes. After drawing sketches with community members about project ideas for this location, we decided to build a concrete table with a system of overlapping benches.

Music is huge in Brazil. People are always drumming on things. We decided to build the table and benches with a built-in drum so that the kids could make music when they played on them. We put an old pot inside a concrete bench and the kids all signed their names on it. We also designed the structure to have poles with hooks so it could be integrated into the laundry system that the women already used the space for. They could hang their sheets and clothes to dry and shade themselves simultaneously.

The best part was seeing everyone help with various parts of the project; from mixing concrete, carrying gravel or helping us make the formwork for the benches, we were constantly engaging with and learning from one another. Once the project was complete, the community members threw a party with music and food. Everyone seemed so excited and welcoming. I will never forget the next day when we woke up to see kids playing on and around the structure and using the table to draw and write. Throughout the day we saw women hanging their laundry as we had hoped and various community members congregated there to play music, talk or just enjoy the day. The project really felt like a success and I will never forget the experiences I had there.

What’s something that the Global Poverty and Practice minor taught you that has influenced the work you hope to do?
To this day, I feel like I’ve been given so many opportunities because of the minor. I love the fact that everyone has their own academic and professional goals and then finds a way to integrate development work within that framework. The GPP minor is a great starting place to learn about and develop critical analytical skills to target pressing issues worldwide. Students from the GPP minor are innovators, paving the way for their self-defined careers and futures. Once I got involved in it, all of these opportunities kept coming my way and the Blum Center always provided their support. And it was with the support of professors like Ananya Roy that I received a Fulbright grant to do research in Guatemala.

Tell us about your Fulbright project.
We used a participatory analysis process to coordinate community development projects in a rural Guatemalan community. After my project in Brazil, I knew I wanted to understand how to better engage communities in the development of their environment. We went through an intensive process of community meetings, surveys, semi-structured interviews, and community mobilizing in order to really understand the needs and strengths of the community. We mutually decided on developing three project scopes, each of which would address specific needs expressed throughout this participatory appraisal process.

The small scale project is to revamp an old building into an information center with computers, a library and an area to give workshops. We wanted it to be a place where the community could connect with the rest of Guatemala and access information and communication resources. For example, we suggested that local coffee farmers could use the Internet to network directly with their buyers and cut out the middle man.

The medium scale project is to help organize a women’s cooperative to start a bakery. During our meetings, women had emphasized their interest in making money for themselves as well as learning new recipes. We agreed that a bread cooperative would be beneficial for them, seeing as they currently buy bread from another community. But again, a project like this one is complex — more than we could have ever initially thought. We had to think about how to grow or buy wheat, what the altitude might permit, the soil, an oven, the skills that each woman could bring to the business as well as trainings for them to learn how to keep finances or sign their names… again, so many details.

The largest and by far the most difficult undertaking is constructing water infrastructure. The nearest water source is two hours away by foot, making it difficult for engineers to map the route, think about a pump system and electricity, where water stations will be placed, drainage, the cost of water and even politics! The minor opens your eyes to the intricacy and massiveness of every project. Nothing is black and white and there are a lot of complex pieces to this work.

What is your dream job?
I don’t know if I have a dream job in mind yet. I want to be someplace where I can expand and improve development programs and interventions. I’d love to apply for an internship at UNDP or USAID. I feel like so many already established programs are not effective and that resources are lost between these institutions and the community or non-profit they are intending to serve. I’d like to find somewhere in between where I could help resources be more well delivered.

What are you doing now?
I applied to graduate school for urban planning with a focus on International Development and will be going to UCLA (on a full-ride scholarship!) starting this fall. This summer, I participated in the Global Health and Women’s Empowerment institute at UCLA. It was one of the most stimulating classes I have every taken and I can’t wait to get more involved in such work. I’ve also been working to develop a student organization called Amazon Medical Program to bring UCLA students to the Brazilian Amazon to work with a nonprofit there who delivers health services to isolated communities along the Amazon River.

Lisa Veliz

Lisa did in-house water quality observations to understand how water is contaminated in a slum in Mumbai, India.

Lisa playing the "germ king" in a production of Hath Mein Sehat's health and hygiene education program at a primary school performance in Hubli, Karnataka.
Lisa playing the "germ king" in a production of Hath Mein Sehat's health and hygiene education program at a primary school performance in Hubli, Karnataka.

Major: Civil and Environmental Engineering

Year of Graduation: 2010

Location and date of Field Experience: India, Summer 2010

Organization: Hath Mein Sehat

Project: in-house water quality observations and NGO development

Hometown: Oak Park, CA

Current Location: Penrin– small suburb of sacramento– moving to Los Altos soon to start a job as an environmental educator!

Quote: The minor got me to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s why I’m challenging myself in ways I wouldn’t have been able to before.

Tell us about your practice experience.
The first summer I went to India was in 2010 and I went to Mumbai. We did in-house water quality observations to understand how water is contaminated in a slum. It was a combined research project: ethnographic, but also biological. We got to work closely with so many families– to break language barriers with student speakers and go into a lot of places that we wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise. Having the “GPP badge” gave us the opportunity to inhabit so many different places and be incredibly mobile.

The second summer I went (2011), we were in a very different place. We went to Hubli in the south and were doing a lot of NGO development. We hired a new staff member, developed our program further and worked to increase the organization’s legitimacy. This coming summer, our NGO will be three years old. It’s so exciting to see this infant organization operating and growing out of our hands, especially when we were so closely holding its hand just a year ago.

Who was the most interesting or inspirational person you met during your practice experience? What did they teach you?
We went to this very modern cafe in rural India (which was totally weird and entirely different than everything else in the town). We started theorizing and coming up with strategies about how to go about our project (as cafe-dwelling Berkeley students often do). Suddenly we thought to ourselves, “Who owns this place?” It was so different from what we had seen and it felt almost out of place, and yet it was incredibly popular with the young, hip local crowd.

We actually ended up becoming close friends with the owner, who was the same age as me. “I just love coffee and I love cafes,” he said to us. He was native Hubli born, had his Master’s Degree and decided at age 23 that he wanted to start his own cafe. His approach to it all was incredible. He was down to earth, but was very well versed in business practices. His whole plan was well thought out and organized, and he obviously had a lot of passion for this venture–I really admire him.

How has the Global Poverty and Practice minor affected your goals and what you hope to accomplish?
The minor got me to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s the essence of what you get after doing your practice. That’s what made me want to come out here and apply for the Fulbright. It’s why I’m challenging myself in ways I wouldn’t have been able to before. The minor has opened a lot of doors for me. It’s a little selfish because I get to go work abroad and take classes that criticize development, but now I see so much potential for international collaboration if you have international experience. The minor gave me a lot of great perspective for that. I feel incredibly lucky to have been given a chance to take advantage of it.

It has also shown me just how important it is to be passionate. After leaving the minor, I’ve started to realize that a lot of the systems I’ve put into place for myself just aren’t paralleled by a lot of people. It’s hard to get people to talk about things they care about– there’s no passion. Especially coming from an engineering background. Engineering curriculum is so dry and a little ridiculous in my opinion. There’s just no social training or exposure. Engineering majors need to take these (GPP) classes. I think we all need to learn a lot more before we go out into the world and think we can solve problems with an equation.

What are you doing now?
I’m currently living and working on a farm. I rise and sleep with the sun, and have the luxury of being distraction-free, in which I spend my time cooking, writing, reading, reflecting, and playing music. So many people spend hours of precious daylight just commuting to and from work, but if you live where you work and grow your own food, it’s hard to find a reason to leave the land.

What is your dream job?
To be a salsa singer/farmer/teacher– being outdoors with music and young people.

Farrah Moos

Farrah helped to build a rain-water harvesting system on top of the latrines that was then used to make a hand-washing station.

The rain-water harvesting system on top of the latrines we built were used to make a hand-washing station.
Farrah helped to build a rain-water harvesting system on top of the latrines that was then used to make a hand-washing station.

Major: Political Economy

Year of Graduation: Spring 2012

Location and date of Field Experience: Tanzania, Summer 2011

Organization: African Immigrant Social and Cultural Services

Project Description: Initiate the planning, preparation, and implementation of a bread oven in the region.

Hometown: New Delhi, India and Anahiem Hills, CA

Current Location: Berkeley, CA

Quote: I knew that I wanted to work on global poverty issues for my whole life, so when I heard about the minor, I thought, “Cool, this is an opportunity to get some academic training in this area I’m passionate about!”

Could you describe your practice experience?
I went to Tanzania specifically to work on a bread oven project, but things totally changed when I got there. We ended up working on large rainwater harvesting tins, latrines, we built a chicken coop and made a children’s gymnastics dome-type structure… That was one of the most important things I learned: what you sign up for isn’t necessarily what you’re going to get. I think that’s probably something really common in global development– it’s not really something you can teach, you more so have to experience it.

What was one significant challenge you faced?
I’d say that my “narrow vision” was a problem I frequently had to deal with. Even having grown up partly in a developing country, there were still a lot of things that I forgot and took for granted. My eyes were opened… I was shocked when I had a side conversation with a woman who asked me about contraception. She was a mother of 10 and didn’t want to have any more children. Before that conversation, I had known she was a mother of 10 but hadn’t really thought much about it. In that moment I realized, “Oh my God, if she had any control over the situation, she would probably not have 10 children…” There are so many intertwining issues that I had never thought about– so many things that were daily life challenges that I had to be beaten over the head with before I really understood.

Describe one interesting and/or inspirational person you encountered.
The founder of the organization, Christine Chacha, was a Swahili professor born and raised in the village area we were working in. She actually passed away a few months ago from cancer, but she was the reason I was attracted to the organization. She understood both foreign and local cultures and could bridge the gap between the two by using what both sides had to offer. She was so full of life and so amazing in her ability to work with and get cooperation from people of all types in the village. She would shame lazy workers, but then hug any small child around. She would sing and dance around the house. Even though she was sick, she was such a force of life. It was an honor to be around her and I am so grateful to have had that time with her.

How has the GPP minor influenced your plans for the future?
I am now forced to question the structure within which I’m working– especially now that I’m working from a grant-giving side. I’ll be critical of the criteria we’re using to evaluate things: Is this the most efficient way to accomplish something? How was it conceived and organized?

Becoming really critical has become my greatest gift from the minor and I hope that stays with me forever. It has changed me so much in terms of how I think about how the world got to be the way it is, which I think is really important to be conscious of if you want to be a part of changing the world into something else.

Benjamin Hans

Benjamin Hans spoke with village leaders to a community about chlorine dispensers in Iganga, Uganda.

Benjamin Hans speaks with village leaders to a community about chlorine dispensers in Iganga, Uganda.
Benjamin Hans speaks with village leaders to a community about chlorine dispensers in Iganga, Uganda.

Major: Industrial Engineering and Operations Research

Location and date of Field Experience: Uganda, Summer 2009

Organization: Engineers for a Sustainable World

Project Description: Improving water quality and reducing disease

Hometown: Redlands, CA

Current Location: Rwanda

Quote: I am driven to bridge the gap between people and their dreams.

What did you do for your practice experience?
There were two projects:

Project #1: We launched a safe water pots program. The village was storing their drinking water in ceramic pots, which helped to keep it cool, but when they went to scoop water out of the pots with a cup, if they touched the water, it was very possible it would be contaminated. We designed a pot with a spigot to limit that contamination.
Project #2: We installed chlorine dispensers next to the wells where the villagers pumped their water. The dispensers dropped 1 ml of chlorine into a bucket of water to kill of any bacteria in it. I thought this project was more interesting than the first one because we got the opportunity to work with the entire village. We had to find a way to communicate that this was a project that would require everyone to pitch in with and learn how to use.
It’s been really amazing to see this project ramp up. We started off installing 5 dispensers in Uganda and currently, the same organization is working on a project to instal 1,000 dispensers in Kenya.

Describe an inspiring person you met during your practice experience.
Our translator Edward became very close to our team. I remember one night, it was a beautiful night in Uganda and you could see all the stars– but he was telling me about his dream to start a primary school. He had gone to the university, gotten his education and had all of these ideas about how he could make a great school to educate the youth in the area. He was trying to get the money to do it and had applied to the government to get the seed money to start this school, but was having no luck.

Here I was, standing next to this man with a great education, a great heart and a passion for wanting to help people, but he couldn’t get his idea off of the ground because there was just no legitimate opportunity for him to access the capital to get it off the ground. That had a huge impact on me– he was someone with so much potential to do great things, but he was entirely limited by his environment and access to opportunity. It got me thinking about how so many people that I meet have dreams and the drive to accomplish them, but because of external factors, they may never be able to get there. We talk a lot about gaps we’re trying to bridge, but Edward made me realize that I am driven to try to bridge that gap– the one between people and their dreams.

If you had one piece of advice for current Global Poverty and Practice minors, what would it be?
I don’t remember all of the facts or the numbers about how many people in India don’t have access to clean water… But the two things I value and will remember most from the minor are:

  1. The importance of educating yourself– the first step to make change is to understand what the problem is and to help other people understand that issue as well. I think I was really naive as a college student. I thought, “I’ve got a great engineering education, maybe I can help make a difference for poor people in the world,” but after working on my project for two months and getting a feel for how things work, I realized that empowering and helping people get out of poverty is incredibly difficult. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work. Change is not easy. Progress is not easy.
  2. The other people in the minor– the GPP minor is filled with like-minded people who are all incredibly passionate about trying to understand a certain bubble of the world. I enjoyed how my perspective on the problems of the world changed. I loved being around passionate, driven people who wanted to genuinely enact change.

One thing college grads should understand is that its difficult to break into the development field and actually apply what you’re studying, but at the end of the day it’s possible if you stick to what you’re interested in.