Monthly Archives: May 2016

Testimonial from Avoki Omekanda: Restoring Education and Energy to the Nation of His Birth

IEEE Smart Village Entrepreneur Avoki Omekanda remembers a time when the country he was born in offered a decent and affordable education, but it’s been decades since things have been that good in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), formerly Zaire.

“I was born right before the independence,” he says, “in 1957. But as time passed, life became miserable there. The university was closed for two years, 1979 and 1981, under the military dictatorship of President Mobutu Sese Seko.”

IMG_4331Avoki attended high school and the first two years of engineering school in the Congo before leaving to continue his education in Morocco for two years, and Belgium for 12 years, where he obtained his Engineer diploma and PhD in Electrical Engineering. “Things back home were not good then,” he remembers.

They still aren’t. Decades spent under Mobutu’s dictatorship followed by years of civil wars ravaged the country, claiming more than six million lives due to fighting and starvation.

Avoki returns three times each year to teach electrical engineering at a local university in the capital city of Kinshasa, where students will sit in the hot auditorium to hear him lecture sometimes as long as 10 hours, “just to hear something new in recent advances of science and engineering. They really appreciate that,” he marvels.

Taking time away from his job as a Research Engineer at General Motors R&D Center to teach in Kinshasa isn’t easy, but Avoki cobbles together weekends, holidays and vacation time to make it work because he wants these students to have as good an education as possible. “There is no internet, no library at their school. It’s miserable. The students will come any time I tell them to come. I show them videos and tell them the real engineering story,” he says. “I try to raise their hope by showing them, ‘I am one of you.’ I tell them, ‘Just work hard and keep grabbing whatever you can in life.’ They listen.”

He’d like to do even more. Through his position on IEEE-Industry Applications Society (IAS)’s Executive Board, Avoki learned about the Smart Village program, which provides innovative, sustainable electrical systems and start-up training and support to energy-deprived communities in the poorest nations of the world. “As soon as I showed an interest in this, the President of IEEE-IAS said, ‘This is great,’ and started to show me slides about what IEEE Smart Village was doing in Nigeria, Haiti, Namibia, Zambia, etc. But not DR Congo.”

Before he knew it, he was being asked to become Ambassador for Smart Village programs for all of Africa, Avoki says. That seemed too much, so he asked a Ghanaian colleague, Dave Kankam, who works at NASA to split the continent with him. “I asked him to take half of Africa and I took the other half, including Congo.”

He’s particularly interested in helping people in Sankuru, the region in which he grew up. “It’s about as big as the state of Michigan,” he says, “and they have zero electricity.”

Avoki is putting together a Development Program for Sankuru province of DR Congo, with the help of skills gained from a Masters’ Degree in Development Practice (MDP) taught online by Regis University, with support from the IEEE Smart Village.

“One of the things we learned is that engineers think that because they have a solution, that solution will work everywhere,” he says. “This is a mistake. Something that works in America might not work everywhere. They told us to be humble. Talk to these people. Find out what are their needs, come up and listen to them and get their feedback. Make sure what you want to implement there is sustainable.”

Following this advice, Avoki met with his colleague at the University in Congo, who also happens to be the governor of Sankuru. He asked him to connect him to NGOs and others in his province that could advise him on their most pressing needs.

“Whatever I do there needs to be sustainable. I don’t want to do this and then leave and everything collapses.”

Avoki understands the importance of creating solutions that can be sustained because he has seen firsthand what happens when a program is not sustainable. He laments that the educational systems put in place in the Congo by Belgium that were there during his youth are now gone. “Everything has collapsed,” he says. “There’s no library now, nothing. I know they used to have it – I was there. It was not sustained. It was a failure. You bring education and then you leave and everything collapses.”

Having a local administrative and political contact, such as the governor of Sankuru, could also help cut through any bureaucratic or other hurdles, he notes. “The surface area of DR Congo is equal to 2.3 million square kilometers, which is an equivalent of 2/3 of the European Union. So, starting our development work in a local region, such as Sankuru, will increase our chance of success in DR Congo.”

Through his contact, Avoki has been putting together a local team that recently met in Kinshasa to discuss Sankuru’s needs and make plans for a survey to be conducted in the near future. He learned that USAID has been donating medication to the region but there is no place to properly store it because there is no power to keep it cool. Another big need is for irrigation, which can be accomplished through solar-powered pumps. There is also a need for clean water. None of these things can be accomplished without electricity.

“There’s kind of a chain of things,” he says. “Our goal is electrification, but only electricity is not enough.”

Helping the people in his region of birth would be a dream come true for Avoki, who feels compelled to give back to a people and place that inspired him to become what he is today. “As I was growing up, math and science were easy for me,” he remembers. “I was first in my class, it came naturally to me, but I didn’t appreciate it. Then one day the principal of my high school came to me and he said, ‘Someone like you needs to go to a school of engineering.’ He even said, ‘I am going to do my best to get a scholarship for you,’ which he did. My family and friends encouraged me, too, because they said being an engineer is a hard thing, but for me it was easy.”

“So I decided to become an engineer, because I wanted to bring technology into people’s lives in DR Congo in order to make life better.”

One thing he wants to see happen quickly is to provide light in people’s homes so that children can do homework at night. “Darkness comes at 4 p.m.,” he says. “There aren’t even candles. Candles are a luxury. They have tree oil and a piece of cotton and you light it. The oil is very bad for your health.”

He also wants to focus on improving the educational system. “The state of schools in DR Congo needs special attention! They appear to lack everything.” He wants to start by running an assessment with his IEEE Smart Village colleagues to quantify the country’s needs and then identify local partners who can help bridge those gaps.

Working with the IEEE Smart Village, he says, has finally given him the opportunity to create substantial change. “The willingness to help people of DR Congo was always in me” he says. “But the opportunity created by the IEEE Smart Village initiative has been a vector and a platform that I can now use to make this dream real. It’s very time consuming, but very satisfying, to think that I can one day make a difference.”

Testimonial from Bai Blyden: Empowering Africa

“Worrying about Africa is the family business,” says Bai Blyden, an IEEE Smart Village Ambassador and Mentor whose life revolves around solving the energy needs of this vast continent.

Blyden grew up rooted in the legacy of his great grandfather, human rights advocate and political philosopher Edward Wilmot Blyden, considered by many to be the Father of Pan Africanism, and that of his father, Edward Blyden III, who played a key role in winning Sierra Leone’s independence from Great Britain.

baiThe elder Blyden, who devoted his life to “uplifting the lives of black people” and whose work in the mid-to-late 1800s inspired African consciousness movements all over the world, passed on to his grandson and his great grandchildren a legacy of putting “others before self.” So powerful was his influence that Bai and his seven siblings all embrace a commitment to social change as part of their own life’s work.

“Every one of us has a different discipline,” he says, including engineering, history, geology, biology, social activism and journalism. “But wanting to give back, we all inherited that.”

“Yet there was never any real pressure on us to excel,” he explains. “My father was not that kind of a teacher.” Rather, Edward III exposed the family to many cultures and societies through their travels (they lived in the U.S., Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Russia during his youth) and encouraged open discussion of a wide range of religious and cultural beliefs and ideas. “We talk about everything in our family,” Bai says.

Bai remembers his father driving him around many poor villages in Nigeria, where people’s only source of water was what they could carry on their heads. “There but for the grace of God go I,” he used to think, voicing a family mantra no doubt first invoked by his great grandfather, who was born a free black man on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands at a time when so many were enslaved.

Bai was taught to regard others — all others — as his equals. Consequently, he developed a strong belief that anything he had in life, be it a pair of shoes or an education, should be equally accessible to all.

From the age of three, Bai also developed a deep love and admiration for anything that had to do with dynamics, starting with airplanes and quickly expanding to include all things Batman. “I actually took him seriously,” he says now, reflecting back on his childhood. “He was the more believable one of all the superheroes. He didn’t fly. He was an engineer.”

Bai would become one as well, studying Power Engineering at the Moscow Energetics Institute, where he specialized in Power Plant, Power Systems and Industrial Distribution systems Design and Development, graduating with a master’s degree in 1979.

“Power is the most transformative form of energy there is,” he says. “There’s a great need for it. I was advised by the rector of the Institute, who said, ‘If you stay with design, you’ll always be useful. Not everyone can do that.’”

That advice resonated strongly with Bai, whose desire to serve others, passion for engineering and legacy of devotion to improving the lives of people in Africa dovetailed into what would become a lifelong focus on how to most effectively bring electric power to developing nations.

“The last century has demonstrated that every facet of human development is woven around a sound and stable energy supply regime,” he wrote in a paper for the IEEE Power & Energy magazine in 2005, in which he outlined efforts by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) to develop an integrated African grid. “Indeed, electricity is the engine of economic growth and development,” he wrote, noting that the overwhelming majority of the population is not connected to any grid, a major contributing factor to the continent’s underdevelopment.

Bai, today a Senior Engineer at Southern Company, has worked on more than 40 major and minor power plant projects throughout his career, and been published widely in international, peer-reviewed journals. He has done extensive research “in the African energy space,” developing a model known as the Knowledge Engine, which focuses on accelerated development and knowledge transfer, particularly in the energy field.

“One of the outcomes of my research in the African energy space was the realization that there was a need for accelerating training skills and knowledge transfer, as we are very much in the information age,” he says. The Knowledge Engine recognizes the need for a standardized curriculum and online communities of people with expertise in the field to digitally share knowledge with universities and technical schools in Africa, allowing local people to obtain the training they need to further develop renewable energy micro grids and regional power pools, now in the nascent stage.

Such groupings of skilled technologists and other supporting disciplines, says Bai, would function like an “energy Peace Corps” in Africa, bringing much-needed power to remote villages now dependent on kerosene and candles. He has been promoting the model to celebrity philanthropists with an interest in global development and has begun discussions with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to explore the possibility of using it in conjunction with President Obama’s Power Africa program and the Global Connect initiative.

For years, Bai’s research and interest in the development of an integrated energy grid in Africa was focused at the macro level. But about five years ago, he ran into a group doing work at the micro-realization level in Africa that set off light bulbs in his head and changed his way of thinking.

At the 2011 inaugural Global Humanitarian Technology Conference in Seattle, hosted by the IEEE Foundation and the United Nations, Bai met representatives from IEEE’s Smart Village program. Smart Village provides innovative, sustainable electrical systems and start-up training and support to energy-deprived communities in the poorest nations of the world. For example, it can provide LED lights bulbs and battery packs with solar voltaic chargers to families so they can charge cell phones and provide lighting for children to do their homework at night, replacing dangerous kerosene lamps that cause health problems.

At first, Bai was skeptical. He thought, “Here we go again, people thinking they can solve Africa’s problems with a project. I was used to thinking bigger than that, about things like combined cycle gas turbine plants, nuclear, small to large hydro power plants. Then I saw the heart that went behind the concept, transforming a guy’s life and going after the lowest guy on the totem pole, really making a difference in his life. Their idea of reaching out to the most disadvantaged around the world using electricity, education and communications to empower people really resonated with me and was philosophically in sync with much of what I’ve been writing about for the last 33 years.”

Smart Village, he realized, was his “energy Peace Corps” in action.

So Bai joined the IEEE Smart Village and now serves as a Smart Village Ambassador and Mentor. His role is to identify where opportunities exist, finding the villages and towns that most need energy assistance. He provides technical direction and assistance with fundraising as well.

What’s next for a man whose life’s goal is to see Africa fully energized? He’d like to see the Knowledge Engine “turned on,” incorporating his model into the work being done by Smart Village and other related programs, such as Power Africa and Global Connect, so that university campuses can develop the 21st century entrepreneurs and technologists needed to carry this work to fruition.