Ahead of the International Day of Co-operatives on 7 July, engineer Will Smith discusses his experience of volunteering with Engineers for Overseas Development to help construct a food storage facility for a women’s co-operative in Uganda
Since March 2013 I have worked with the North West branch of Engineers for Overseas Development (EFOD). EFOD is a charity that aims to deliver engineering solutions to help some of the poorest people around the world, particularly in Uganda. It also aims to develop the skills of young professionals from the UK construction industry, providing them with experience of managing and delivering real construction projects.
Each branch of EFOD is reliant on members dedicating their time voluntarily to select, design and manage the construction each project.
I attended a few initial meetings with EFOD NW at the start of their second project - the construction of a food store in rural Uganda. I was enticed by the opportunity to apply my engineering skills on projects that would benefit poverty-afflicted communities and offer me the opportunity to travel to Uganda.
As I had previously undertaken a placement with Engineers without Borders in Kenya, I knew my experience could be beneficial to the team.
I soon found myself volunteering to take on the role of Chair, holding this role with the North West branch from March 2013 to March 2015 and overseeing the delivery of the food store project. The project wanted to build on the established practices of the Nyakoi Women's Co-operative in community improvement and empowerment of women.
As well as provide them with a facility to store their produce year round, safe from pest and environmental factors. This would allow them to sell their produce outside of harvest season and therefore realise a better financial return.
EFOD projects present a unique set of challenges, even before the members have travelled to site. Volunteers are required to select a suitable scheme, build a team from scratch, apply their engineering knowledge to a foreign setting, select appropriate technologies for construction and raise all the funds required for the scheme.
Selecting appropriate construction technologies is critical to the successful implementation of any project. The scarcity of engineering plant, availability of quality construction materials and tools, and the construction skills of the local workforce are all considered when designing a project.
An appropriate technology used on many of the EFOD schemes is Interlocking Stabilised Soil Blocks (ISSBs).
The blocks comprise excavated Marram (soil) and a small proportion of cement, pressed by hand using a mechanical press. ISSBs have a number of benefits when compared to the alternatives, local fired brick or concrete blocks. ISSBs require a reduced cement content, 5-8%, compared to concrete blocks and make use of locally available marram.
The production of fired clay bricks uses fossil fuels, contributing to local deforestation. ISSBs are therefore considered a more sustainable technology and their use on EFOD's construction projects imparts new skills to the local workforce.
To reduce the occurrence of unforeseen risks in construction, it is highly beneficial for the team to undertake a site visit. Funds on EFOD projects are typically very limited and committing to a site visit can be a costly consideration. However, the benefit to the project of gaining an understanding of the local environment, meeting the local stakeholders and undertaking site surveys, far outweighs the financial cost of sending a couple of volunteers to site.
I undertook a weeklong site visit to Mayuge to inform the branch's third project, Kathy's Centre. This visit allowed us to meet the beneficiaries of the project, engage with local suppliers of construction materials, liaise with Chinese contractors who were building a main road adjacent to our site, and investigate the proposed project site prior to procurement of the land.
The team of volunteer engineers raise all the funding required for EFOD projects. With a typical project costing between £30,000 and £60,000, fundraising is a primary challenge for the team.
Generous grants from employers such at Mott MacDonald, Arup, AECOM, Wood Group and from ICE and IMechE have provided some of the much needed funds. The remainder is raised through events such as endurance challenges, corporate events and raffles.
The construction phase is overseen by EFOD members who travel to site, typically for consecutive two-week periods. The volunteer's primary roles are to brief the site team and ensure they adhere to the design, oversee construction activities, manage procurement of materials and manage site health, safety & welfare (HSW).
HSW during construction presents a key challenge to the project as awareness of hazards is lacking among the local Ugandan workforce.
While planning the construction can go a long way to eliminating or managing the hazards encountered, the unfamiliar nature of the project and environment can throw up unforeseen challenges such as labourers walking on wet cement with bare feet!
The construction phase also offers EFOD volunteers a unique opportunity to interact with the local community and enjoy the natural beauty of sub-Saharan Africa.
Global Engineering Congress
Engineers can contribute significantly to overseas development while gaining skills and experience for themselves.
ICE is bringing together engineers from around the world at the first Global Engineering Congress in October 2018, which will include discussion and debate around the challenges and rewards of engineering for sustainable development. Find out more.