Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE): Bringing Small-Scale Farmers from Subsistence to Sustainability in Kenya - Arianna De Reus, Community, Environment and Development major


Posted: September 5, 2013

From the HESE program I gained international experience and worked on an appropriate technology venture to address global problems, which helped me grow as a global professional.
Arianna with a local child at the Children and Youth Empowerment Center (CYEC), Kenya

Arianna with a local child at the Children and Youth Empowerment Center (CYEC), Kenya

This summer I traveled to Kenya with Penn State’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program. HESE enables students to work on appropriate technology ventures that address global problems. All year, my team and I worked on the Affordable Greenhouse Venture, which enables small-scale farmers to grow crops year-round. Small-scale farmers in East Africa suffer from seasonal unemployment and food insecurity resulting from long rain and dry seasons. However with the greenhouse designed by Penn State students and faculty, famers now have an affordable, durable, expandable solution made of locally sourced materials to improve food security.

Last summer we licensed the greenhouse technology to a for-profit company in Kenya called Mavuuno Greenhouses Ltd. We were thrilled about this partnership since Mavuuno is run by Penn State alums! They are now mass manufacturing our greenhouses as kits throughout Kenya. This summer my assignment was to plan a greenhouse showcase event at Wambugu Farms with my teammates. Wambugu Farms is an agricultural research center funded by the Kenyan government which promotes agricultural education for farmers. My team and I had to network and have numerous meetings with influential people from the local town of Nyeri to plan the event. We met with representatives from banks, farming cooperatives and savings and credit organizations known as SACCOs. In addition, we met with representatives of the media, inviting them to cover the showcase event.

DeReusKenya2.pngAccomplishing tasks in rural Kenya is always complicated, and requires one to be resourceful at all times. Transportation is limited, everything takes longer than you expect, and there are minimal stores. Every detail of a plan must be thought out and accounted for in advance to be successful. For example, when printing flyers, we had to take a public matatu to town, find an internet café, print the flyers. Then we had to take another public matatu to Wambugu Farms to hang them on the gate. We had to buy twine at a small shop along the road to tie them to the gate, and we didn’t have scissors so we asked the security guard to borrow his knife. Then we had to walk a around a mile back to the hotel. All of these steps took an entire day, all to hang flyers on a gate. We had to ask around for directions, help and navigate public transportation.

The morning of the event, people started to show up at 9:20 am, and by noon there were over 60 people. Representatives from the Kenya Ministry of Agriculture, Kenya Ministry of trade, local farmers, banks, SACCOs and others all attended the event. We were thrilled that everyone showed up because the CEO of Mavuuno Dr. Wanjiru Kamau came from Nairobi to attend. We were extremely excited because all of the media that we had invited showed up. People with cameras and note pads from Kenyan TV stations and newspapers were all there to interview Dr. Kamau and the director of the HESE program, Khanjan Mehta. They were interviewed at length, and this was exactly the publicity that Mavuuno needed. Many people also expressed interest at the event in purchasing a greenhouse. Overall, it was extremely successful and we were very happy with the outcome. Mavuuno and HESE got exposure to a large outlet of people and we had a great attendance.

Participating in the HESE trip to Kenya always provides me with new life lessons that can be applied to my personal and professional life. Working in a chaotic environment out of my comfort zone where the food, language and living accommodations are different from what I’m used to in the U.S. always takes some adjustment. This trip gave me more experience in an educational program abroad, understanding how to learn and be successful in a new environment. This was my second HESE trip to Kenya and sixth trip to Africa. Since I am only a rising junior, each trip abroad helps me develop into maturity and grow as a more independent, educated person. In the future with my personal and professional life, I will be able to draw from this experience and use these life lessons to grow personally and professionally.