Dispatch from Kenya: Getting to work

College of IST Dispatch from Kenya Series

A group of students from seven Penn State colleges are spending part of the summer in Nyeri, Kenya to work on three humanitarian engineering and social entrepreneurship projects, Mashavu, WishVast and Eco-Village. In this excerpt, Steve Garguilo, (WishVast team) and Jimmy Mesta (Mashavu team) discuss working with the local community and its young residents.

Steve Garguilo: Using a Lifeline

We've been spending a lot of time trying to get the WishVast Network Management System up and running. The initial cell phone that we were trying did not work properly, so we ventured back to Nyeri town to get a new phone. We actually tested it at the shop so we would be sure that it would work. The cell phone connects to the computer properly, but there is still some disconnect between the software and the database because the messages aren't sending correctly. We actually put in a call to Eric (our main developer) and tried to communicate for help despite the seven-hour time difference, but no dice as of yet. The technology testing is only our secondary goal, though. We're making a lot of progress on our primary goal.

We’ve also had a lot of time to spend with the children in the area. The kids are absolutely exhausting, but it's worth every second we can spend with them. They appreciate so much that we're here. They were constantly asking for piggyback rides and for us to spin them around. Despite the fact this was tiring, who can say no? I know we won't have a TON of free time to spend with the kids over the course of the trip, but they are so much fun to play with and I plan to spend as much time with them as possible. It's really hard to say goodbye to them at the end of the day as a lot of them crowd around our van to see us off, and smile and wave to us as we drive away. I think we're all getting attached...

Jimmy Mesta: Making a Pitch

We recently presented the Mashavu system to our first local client. No projector, no PowerPoint, no fancy equipment. We pitched a semesters worth of hard work in a crowded room with some chairs and two laptops to a local nun who is a certified nurse from Mweiga named Sister Purity, who was accompanied by her partner Joseph, a community health worker who focuses on HIV/AIDS. Our two stakeholders arrived early in the morning to listen to our pitch. Sister Purity has been informed about the system but wanted to gain some more knowledge and actually see the equipment in action. The entire Mashavu team lined the room while the presenters scurried to organize the working demonstration.

Aaron Fleishman, Julia Wittig, Mike Perone, and I gave a brief overview of the project as a whole and then showed Sister Purity and Joseph the functionality of the LabView software and the Web site that the doctors will be using for the diagnosis of cases. Mike demonstrated the thermometer on himself and then discussed the rest of the biomedical equipment.

Sister Purity provided our entire team with very insightful feedback after our somewhat informal presentation. She first talked about the issues dealing with maintenance of the biomedical devices and also raised concern about the people who will be operating the Mashavu kiosk and how they would be selected and trained. Sterilization was also a concern. Seeing these concerns while in Kenya made the whole team realize that the need for a high quality, sustainable, and usable system that we discussed in class were real. People were actually going to be relying on our work for their well-being.

Sister Purity then discussed our visit to Mweiga and how we will travel there to gauge interest in the system and community buy-in. The team will be preparing a working system that will take a patients vitals, input them into LabView, send the data to a doctor over the Internet, and receive a response to the case. While in Mweiga, measurements will be compared and benchmarked with out of the box devices that were brought with us including a thermometer, weighing scale, blood pressure monitor, and pulse rate monitor.

After the discussion with our stakeholders, the group split up. The biomedical engineering team collaborated and discussed some of the issues and concerns that Sister Purity brought up in her discussion. The team realized that there was a need for a high quality final product before going into production in Mweiga, so they went to work for the day testing and building the devices to specifications.

The other half of the team worked on community engagement and conducted surveys. We traveled outside the walls of CYEC and into the rural community. Many of the women that we talked to did not work and lived with family nearby. When asking the women about healthcare the answers were very similar, most of the community seemed to use the Nyeri General Hospital for their healthcare needs. The biggest hurdle for these families is getting to the hospital; it is about five kilometers away.

The days are long but it is worthwhile. It seems that the project is starting to come together and there is a buzz going around the community. Mashavu is evolving into a real-world system that has the potential to change lives here in Kenya.

Last Updated November 18, 2010