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The Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) Affordable Greenhouse Venture: Improving Food Security in Kenya and Rwanda - Arianna De Reus, Community Environment Development (CED)

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Posted: August 28, 2012

I was raised to value service to others above all things and the HESE program has enabled me to work on real-life, social entrepreneurial ventures with great social impact.
Arianna with Penn State Altoona partners and students from the Star School, Rwanda

Arianna with Penn State Altoona partners and students from the Star School, Rwanda

My summer abroad with Penn State’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program in Kenya and Rwanda was an incredible growth experience both personally and academically. I was fortunate to work on the Affordable Greenhouse team, with four other PSU students. Overall our team’s objective was to provide entrepreneurs and small-scale farmers in East Africa a way to improve food security by using our affordable greenhouse design. Food insecurity is a significant issue in East Africa because of the long rain and dry seasons, prohibiting farmers from growing crops year-round and creating seasonal unemployment. Our affordable greenhouse design enables small-scale farmers to grow crops year round and improve their livelihoods through increased crop yields and job security. My team had an exceptionally busy five weeks in Kenya and Rwanda, with different partners and prerogatives in each country.  By the end of this trip, a greenhouse was built at the CYEC, a social enterprise called Mavuuno was created, two greenhouses were built at the Star School and two research projects were conducted. All of these deliverables were extensive learning experiences, teaching me flexibility, how to work in a team under pressure, and how a social enterprise is created.

DeReusKenya2.pngIn Kenya, my team worked with local partners and Penn State Alumni to start a social enterprise called Mavuuno. Our partners wanted to be able to mass manufacture our greenhouse as a kit. They also wanted to employ construction workers and train them to build the Mavuuno greenhouse for customers. This social enterprise is a win-win situation, where the owners make money from selling greenhouses, create jobs by employing young construction workers, and provide small-scale farmers an affordable way to increase their food security.  The Mavuuno greenhouse is the only affordable option for small-scale farmers in East Africa, as larger greenhouses for exporting produce are too expensive. Now for every greenhouse sold by Mavuuno, HESE will receive a small portion of the profits. This will create funding for future HESE students to travel, making the program more sustainable.

Our team planned a two-day work shop conducted at the CYEC for Mavuuno. We taught Mavuuno’s future construction workers everything there is to know about the greenhouse, from construction to maintenance. As part of the workshop, we participated in the construction of a Mavuuno greenhouse at the CYEC. We trained the construction workers how to build it, and then let them take the lead, facilitating the building process. Then we worked with the CYEC to develop a contract and give them a loan in kind so that they could have the greenhouse. This greenhouse will enable the CYEC to grow more food and sell more food in the market.

In Rwanda my greenhouse team met up with a team from Penn State Altoona lead by my mom, Dr. Lee Ann De Reus. Together we worked with disadvantaged high school students and their teachers at a private school called the Star School to build two greenhouses. This was a great cultural exchange and collaboration that benefitted both Rwandan and Penn State students. We built both greenhouses in one week, which took considerable team work and resourcefulness. We also taught teachers and the older students about greenhouse construction and maintenance. Now the school will have students to maintain and grow crops to help feed over 500 children studying there. This will save the school considerable money, as food is so expensive in Rwanda. DeReusKenya3.png

This HESE trip facilitated my professional development in numerous ways. My long-term professional goal is to work for the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Service officer. This requires years of on the ground experience to prepare for a life of living abroad. Work in a developing country is always more challenging than doing it at Penn State, where resources are available and situations are predictable. No research article can prepare a person for work in a different culture. However, the more times I travel abroad, the easier it is for me to navigate cultural and situational differences. While I can never be completely prepared for what will come with work on the ground, I can be well practiced in handling change.

My major, Community Environment and Development focuses on food security, which is an issue I am particularly interested in pursuing with further study. Participating on the affordable greenhouse team this summer gave me another angle on negating food insecurity and taught me how a social enterprise like Mavuuno can be a possible solution. In addition, I was able to work on two research papers while in Kenya based on interviews we conducted with farmers and traders about stressors on food value chains. Knowing how to conduct research is a vital skill that I need to be a successful undergraduate and professional. I am always looking to improve my academic skills. Conducting research will enable me to learn more about issues around social entrepreneurship and food insecurity.

I have grown up doing service work abroad, and this trip was a new approach to improving the world. I was raised to value service to others above all things and the HESE program has enabled me to work on real-life, social entrepreneurial ventures with great social impact. I am a social entrepreneurship convert now, because it enables people to make money and have a positive social impact at the same time. If more businesses were like this, the need for foreign aid could be diminished significantly. Social entrepreneurship stresses the importance of local stakeholders having ownership, which creates sustainability. The model that HESE uses with its ventures does exactly this, ultimately reducing the need for foreign aid. I feel fortunate to have participated in the HESE program this summer. It is a unique program because it turns students into leaders, enabling them to work in real-life situations, making tangible social impact for others. Throughout my time in Kenya and Rwanda I learned personal and professional life lessons which will continue to benefit me at Penn State and in my future career.