New book designed to educate students, raise awareness of Africa's challenges

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Khanjan Mehta, director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program and assistant professor of engineering design, has published a book titled "The Kochia Chronicles: Systemic Challenges and the Foundations of Social Innovation."

This book is the first of a three-part series of short stories Mehta wrote based on his experiences conducting research and advancing technology-based social ventures in East Africa over the past decade.

The Kochia Chronicles are a series of fictional stories about the inhabitants of Kochia, a rural area in western Kenya. Readers get a glimpse of life, problems and innovations in developing communities in the backdrop of the rapidly evolving political, social, economic, technological and global context. The stories weave a systemic web of concepts, approaches, facts, statistics, norms, musings and emotions to help readers internalize and empathize with the people, their context and their choices. The objective is to enable readers to step into a world radically different than their own and appreciate the paradoxical simplicity and complexity of development challenges.

Mehta says he chose Kochia as the book's setting because it's where his first venture was located. "I have been very fortunate to meet some amazing people in this beautiful little part of the world. They have taught me so much and impacted my life in so many ways."

In fact, Mehta says his stories incorporate perspectives gleaned from conversations with thousands of people across the 40 countries he has visited.

Mehta, who travels extensively with students in the HESE program, explains that his book is meant to serve as a tool to educate students about Africa's culture before they embark on their entrepreneurial ventures and research endeavors. He said, "While facts and figures about Kenya, Cameroon or Haiti are easy to find, a deeper understanding of how things work in developing communities is difficult to attain. The book takes students' minds virtually to Kenya so they can appreciate the difficulties and opportunities of effecting social change."

Students in Mehta's ENGR 451 Social Entrepreneurship class can borrow the book, free of charge, for the semester. He noted, "Alongside the core content, students read the stories before class and we discuss the issues in class. I am getting takeaways and questions from students that I was never able to get in the past.

Mehta adds that many misconceptions exist in our society about development challenges and poverty in Africa. He said, "There are 54 countries and thousands of cultures in Africa. Everything is context-specific. We advocate for 'teaching a man how to fish,' but that is ineffective and impractical in places like Kochia, where highly-skilled fishermen cannot access the millions of fish in their vicinity due to a variety of cultural, economic or political reasons. I want to educate people about the real challenges in Africa while celebrating the people's ingenuity, perseverance and openness to other ways of doing and thinking."

Reflecting on his writing experience, Mehta recalled, "My initial goal was to finish one book with a series of short stories. As I explored more, I realized that it was impossible to fit it all into one book, hence it has grown to a three-part series."

He hopes to have the second set of stories, focused on engineering design and business strategy issues for agricultural technology ventures, completed by March 2014 and the third set, related to community health challenges and telemedicine ventures, written by the end of summer 2014.

Mehta smiled, "This book is a social venture by itself, and it reflects the philosophy and approach of the HESE program."

For more information about the HESE program, visit www.hese.psu.edu.

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Last Updated October 03, 2013