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Engineering Projects Transform Kenyan Street Youths, Help Communities

Author: Laura May Abbott
Thanks to two related I2D Lab projects, former street youths in rural Kenya are preparing for professional careers and area communities are gaining economic boosts. Teams lead by Jennifer DeBoer, PhD, assistant professor of engineering education and (by courtesy) mechanical engineering, and John Lumkes, PhD, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, are collaborating to bring engineering principles, techniques and tools to the Tumaini Innovation Center in the Kenyan city of Eldoret. The surrounding region also is benefiting, and expansion plans are underway.

Purdue-inspired experiential teaching methods at the residential school, including hands-on opportunities to help build and maintain utility vehicles, have improved students’ skills, self-esteem and aspirations. In addition, work in progress to commercialize the local manufacture, sourcing and repair of the vehicles promises practical applications for farmers and municipalities, with students’ involvement.  

Tumani Center Team


Engineering might seem an unlikely fit for youths in a developing nation who until recently lived on the street and relied on handouts for food.

But two intertwined Global Engineering I2D Lab projects are proving otherwise.

Teams led by Jennifer DeBoer, PhD, assistant professor of engineering education and (by courtesy) mechanical engineering, and John Lumkes, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, are transforming education – and outcomes – at the locally run Tumaini Innovation Center in the rural Kenyan city of Eldoret.

By applying an engineering approach to teaching at this nonprofit residential school, as well as introducing multipurpose utility vehicles that students help build and maintain, the projects are opening new doors to students and helping solve local agricultural, transportation and energy challenges.


Flipping a Notion on its Head

“There’s a common perception that engineering is difficult to teach and learn so it needs to be reserved for the elite,” says DeBoer, whose team designed and began implementing a curriculum to shift the Tumaini Center from lecture-based education to student-centered learning in 2016. “We’re flipping that impression on its head by instilling a practical model that offers hands-on opportunities, empowering students to think of themselves as engineers and give back to their communities.”

Tumaini, which means “hope” in Swahili, is living up to its name.

The center’s founder and director, Samwel Kimani, says: “It’s very exciting to see our students flourishing since the Purdue Engineers arrived. The Purdue experts have taught our staff to help our students make the most of their resourcefulness, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. Our Purdue partners have enabled us to engage our students with interactive tablets and a custom-built online platform, as well as experiential learning, involving utility vehicles and solar panels.”

In a milestone, the students in April participated in mounting a solar-energy system – an antidote to frequent electrical outages – on the roof of their school. Now they can use related skills to help local businesses tap solar power.  

“The new way of learning and technical knowledge have helped students overcome the stigma of their street backgrounds,” Kimani says. “I’ve seen amazing increases in their courage and confidence, and they’re now interested in pursuing professional careers to help address community needs. They feel enabled, with a strong belief in themselves.”

When the Tumaini Center opened in 2015, students typically expected to become low-paid, low-skilled laborers or vehicle drivers after graduating. Today, they are progressing to secondary school and setting their sights on professional and executive positions – in some cases, as their own bosses. One student dreams of running a Tumaini-type school, another envisions becoming a car manufacturer, and yet another aspires to start an auto-maintenance shop employing street youths.


“Making Theory Come Alive”

Enthusiasm for automotive ventures stems from the Purdue Utility Platform (PUP) project, which Lumkes and his team integrated with engineering education at the Tumaini Center in 2016 after introducing PUP vehicles in several other African countries and Colombia.

This project involves designing and building prototypes of affordable, labor-saving, multipurpose agricultural vehicles that are manufactured, sourced and serviced locally. The main goals are to improve access to markets, food, water, education and medical care. In the process, communities can enhance small farmers’ production, productivity and transportation – and create jobs. State-of-the-art engineering and modeling tools enable the simple, three-wheeled vehicles to sell at low prices, provide good fuel economy, and offer higher loading capacity than motorcycles.

“The PUP project is making theory come alive at the Tumaini Center, and it complements what Jennifer’s team is doing with engineering education,” Lumkes says. “Working in an on-site lab, the Tumaini Center students acquire general engineering and trade skills – and develop a potential source of income – by helping build, test, troubleshoot, repair and drive PUP vehicles.”

He adds: “As engineering problem solvers, they learn to design for different purposes and to tackle such community challenges as inefficient farming, food insecurity, unreliable power and undeveloped roads. Besides efficiently carrying people and materials, PUP vehicles can supply portable power generation, water pumping and maize grinding. They can even serve as ambulances and fire trucks.”

In May and June, eight Purdue Study Abroad students went to the Tumaini Center to work with local students to assemble and test three PUP prototypes. Along with helping put the vehicles on the road, the Kenyan students used them to haul construction materials to their school and travel to a dance competition.


Collaborative Ventures

Both Purdue projects at the Tumaini Center are team endeavors, combining Purdue, corporate, nonprofit and local resources.

I2D Lab seed grants support the engineering education project, in which Purdue collaborates with the Tumaini Center staff, as well as Sonak Pastakia, an associate professor of the Purdue School of Pharmacy. Pastakia, who helped found the Tumaini Center, currently serves as team leader of the Purdue Pharmacy in Kenya and a pharmacist for Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare (AMPATH). Quanser supplies the tablets.

A Ford College Community Challenge grant and the John Deere Foundation have provided funding for the PUP project in Kenya. Lumkes’ PUP team also partners with a Purdue-affiliated startup company he helped establish, Mobile Agricultural Power Solutions (MAPS), whose contributions in Kenya have included building a vehicle at the Tumaini Center in 2016 and marketing the three recently assembled vehicles.


Expansion Plans

This is only the beginning.

Building on educational success and community interest that Purdue is nurturing, Kimani estimates the center’s enrollment will increase from 20 students now to 150 students in five years. To support that growth, Purdue is helping the Tumaini Center develop business ventures to provide funding and jobs. Kimani says he learned much about entrepreneurship as a visiting scholar at Purdue on a Mandela Washington Fellowship this summer, and MAPS and the Purdue Foundry are fostering the Tumaini Center’s efforts to commercialize PUP production.

The PUP team and MAPS are researching how best to serve surrounding communities. Options include selling vehicles to individual farmers, agricultural cooperatives, and municipalities.

Actually, Purdue’s Tumaini Center-related I2D Lab projects are bigger than Tumaini or Kenya.

“We’re working to create a financially viable business entity to scale up the PUP project for broader impact,” says MAPS co-founder David Wilson, a Purdue agricultural and biological engineering alum who also is an undergraduate lab manager at Purdue. “We’ve received a lot of requests from potential partners, including a vocational-technical school.”

Currently, PUP vehicles are being used at universities in Uganda and Colombia, MAPS operates a production shop in Nigeria, and work is in progress in Guinea and Cameroon.

Effects of Purdue’s I2D Lab work with the Tumaini Center also may be felt closer to home. DeBoer says Purdue is talking with prospective university partners about bringing a similar curriculum of excellence model for engineering education to street youths in areas of the United States.


Applying Learnings Back Home 

Tumaini Center students and faculty aren’t the only people to benefit from the I2D Lab projects. Purdue participants in the Tumaini Center projects have gleaned important professional and personal insights that they’re putting to use back home – in some cases, in Purdue classrooms.

DeBoer is giving her students on campus a taste of the Tumaini experience. “I’m integrating my Tumaini Center work with First-Year Engineering classes I teach at Purdue,” she says. “For example, I ask my ‘Introduction to Engineering’ students to design a zero-energy dorm and have Tumaini students evaluate their work. The students in West Lafayette and Eldoret communicate via Skype calls and email.”   

Purdue students of Dhinesh Radhakrishnan, an engineering education doctoral student and graduate research assistant who recently returned from Kenya, also are reaping rewards from his involvement in the engineering education project. “As I started teaching at Purdue, I found I could apply a lot of what I had learned at the Tumaini Center about understanding students’ needs and providing individual instruction. The Tumaini teachers actually go a step beyond, being adaptable and resourceful to help students overcome such challenges as frequent power and internet outages.”

Experiencing those infrastructure obstacles in Kenya has an upside, Wilson observes. “We take technology and infrastructure for granted, so working at the Tumaini Center, for example, helps Purdue students and faculty appreciate what it’s like to live without full-time access to electricity and smartphones or tablets.”

In fact, Wilson perceives an advantage to Kenyan’s lesser dependence on electronic communications. “I’ve seen a more people- and relationship-based culture, versus the time- and task-based culture in America,” he says. “It’s a reminder that there’s value in knowing and talking with people even if it delays getting some of the work done.”

Another Purdue project participant taking Kenyan traits to heart is Margaret Hegwood, a graduate student and graduate assistant in agricultural and biological engineering, who spent a month in Eldoret this summer assessing commercial potential for the PUP project. “The hospitality and graciousness of the people are incredible – something to incorporate into our lives,” she says. “The farmers I interviewed in my research welcomed me and generously offered me food, and they were very grateful for our assistance to their community.”

Hegwood also has a new definition of development work. “People often speak of providing a handout or a hand up, as if they were coming from a higher place,” she says. “But I’ve come to think of it as a handshake. We need to recognize the people of developing countries as a valuable resource and work with them as equals to help address their needs.”

Help the PUP team continue their work in Eldoret, Kenya! Cast your vote for their video at by October 23rd at midnight! YOU can help make a difference in the lives of individuals around the globe. Vote today! Boiler Up!