2018 Grant Award: Jack Iffert

This past May, I participated in the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program’s fieldwork trip. If you think you are having déjà vu, do not fret, because last year I travelled to Tanzania with the same program! However, this year, my work was based out of the lake-side city of Kisumu, Kenya, arguably the largest economic and cultural center for western Kenya. HESE is focused on developing economically, environmentally, culturally and politically sustainable business ventures focused on problems faced by developing communities. Last fall, I completed my HESE coursework, yet sought to maintain my involvement with the program through advising the future of HESE as well as traveling again during the Maymester. Last year’s trip was incredible for revealing to me what life is like for the majority of people throughout the world. My perspective of being a financially-comfortable white male in the United States was met head when working in communities where some people were making under $2 a day. While I greatly value last year’s trip for its impact on my worldview and willingness to travel into the unknown, I did not feel as though the work that I accomplished was oriented towards HESE’s mission of developing sustainable social business ventures. Therefore, a large motivator behind my return to East Africa was to further refine my skills and build meaningful relationships with partners on the ground while developing a venture.

Officially, my title for the trip this year was a “camp counselor”, meant to guide and supervise a venture team. While I often took on this role as counselor, in reality, I felt fully assimilated with the team, and took great interest in developing the venture alongside my teammates. It was definitely an interesting role to be in, as my teammates had been working on the venture for the past two semesters, whereas I was brand new to the venture and eager to share my thoughts on the steps forward. In retrospect, I was fulfilled and happy with how I navigated a seemingly blurry “role” in the group. Although I was the camp counselor, I felt that working with my team as an equal team member made for a better “counselor” to camper relationship. This takeaway is a component of leadership that I whole-heartedly believe in, that leaders should work alongside their teams in order to really understand where the team lies, understand the dynamics, etc.

Other than gaining this unique leadership experience, I had a very real experience in developing a social venture. Our team is focused on producing fuel briquettes out of water hyacinth, an invasive plant species found throughout Lake Victoria. With these briquettes, we hope to save end-users money, as well as reduce the dependency on environmentally deleterious charcoal and better manage the ecological impact of water hyacinth through controlled harvesting. In Kisumu, I had a unique opportunity to build local relationships, work across cultures, and work together towards something real. While our prototype briquettes are nowhere near final form, what we did in Kisumu was very real and was supported by and done with very real stakeholders. This experience has motivated and empowered me to take the possibility of working in developing communities more seriously. Just as importantly, it has influenced me to ask myself what kind of engineer I want to be, ask myself what problems I would like to aim to solve, and ask who to go about this with. By continuing to work and learn alongside my classmates and colleagues abroad, I hope to bridge the gap between our perspectives to create new and innovative solutions to the complex issues of society.

The PLA played a very generous role in helping me afford this incredible experience. Thank you, PLA, for your continued role in allowing me to follow my interests and seek out alternatives ways to learn about the world!