Notes from Africa: The Economy and Engineering

Purdue’s Global Engineering Program is working with the African Centre for Renewable Energy & Sustainable Technology (ACREST) to establish a motorized Basic Utility Vehicle (BUV) micro-factory in Bangang, Mbouda, Cameroon. The factory will serve as a manufacturing and training center for all of Central Africa.

Isaac ZamaAs part of the partnership, a group of Purdue agricultural and biological engineering students took on the BUV project as a senior design project. The students travelled to Cameroon in May to work with their African partners. What follows is a brief conversation with Isaac Zama of ACREST about the state of the African economy and the relationship with Purdue Engineering:

Q: How are Cameroon and your organization affected by the current global economic situation?

A: Cameroon is not immune to the global economic downturn. The effects are really being felt, particularly in rural areas where the poverty rate is very high. Remittances from abroad (Cameroonians in the Diaspora) are declining drastically, making life much more difficult for the people who rely on relatives abroad for their sustenance. For most African countries, money sent home from the Diaspora represents a huge portion of the GDP. With the global economic crisis, the annual economic growth forecast for Cameroon for 2009 is about 0.5 percent, and 2 percent for 2010, from previous estimates of 2.4 percent and 3.6 percent. ACREST is affected by this crisis, as many of our members who live abroad have drastically reduced voluntary contribution to support the activities of the centre. In other words, it will be very difficult for us to recruit additional staff, given the amount of work that we have at the moment.

Q: How can the partnership with Purdue’s College of Engineering help?

A: Partnerships like the one with Purdue’s Global Engineering Program are very important to us, because the students help us with research and development, providing skills and technology that we might otherwise not be able to develop on our own because of lack of resources. ACREST hopes to receive technical assistance from this partnership in different areas including transport (BUV), energy generation (micro-hydropower), and energy efficiency. We do not have the resources that Purdue engineering labs and machine shops offer. Engineering students will help ACREST in designing, testing, and refining technology that can then be easily replicated in developing countries.

For example, many Sub-Saharan African countries have micro-hydropower potential. If low-cost turbines are developed and disseminated, people will use them to address their energy needs and fight poverty in the process. These are clean technologies that were instrumental in the development of western countries, but today are still unknown in much of Africa. They could make a tremendous impact, particularly in the Central African Region (Cameroon, Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Central African Republic). These countries have lots of small and big rivers that could serve to generate electricity in remote areas without the need for costly national electricity grids. One of the major drawbacks to economic development in the Central African Region is the absence of reliable electricity.

Another example is the abundance of oil producing seeds. In Cameroon, we have lots of oil producing seeds that can be processed and used as a substitute for imported diesel right in rural areas. Our idea is to design very simple and affordable processing machines that can be maintained in very remote areas to enable them to process oil from seeds that can be used to make soap or power diesel generators for electricity generation.

The opportunities are limited only by our imagination. We have a resourceful and hardworking population. We need to provide them with these technologies to help improve their lives. Hopefully, this partnership will give Purdue the opportunity to have a substantial impact on the lives of millions of people across the globe.