July 15, 2012
I am taking moisture data of fecal sludge at one of the Waste Enterprisers sites
I cannot believe it’s already been two months since I got here. Everything has been happening extremely fast. Starting from day 2, I was already at the local dumpsite working with fecal sludge. Stepped on it, grabbed it (with gloves on, of course), sampled it, traveled a long distance with it, mixed it with some chemicals, dried it in a giant oven, closely observed characteristics of it, and counted the number of helminthes growing in it. I’ve become a fecal sludge Jedi.
I’m working at Waste Enterprisers, a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded energy start-up co-founded by professors from UC Berkeley and Columbia University. The start-up has innovative technology to produce biodiesel and coal-like industrial fuel from fecal sludge, allowing us to tackle sanitation problems and sustainable energy challenges in developing countries.
I’m responsible for building a fully functional pilot plant capable of processing at least 100 cubic meters of fecal sludge every day. It’s quite a big responsibility for a summer intern, but that’s the beauty of working at a start-up. ‘Hands-on’ experience guaranteed. Additionally, my co-workers and I are working on getting our fuel officially certified by a third-party institution. A few European buyers already agreed to purchase our fuel once we reach the consistency and stability in our production. Getting certified will help us further increase the marketability of our products. Although I spend most of my time at the dump site and a local university lab running tests, my internship allows me to learn a great deal about making profits from carbon credits mandated by government policy. We’ve met officials from Ghana Energy Commission and discussed how we can benefit from Ghana’s feed-in-tariffs.
One of the dumpsites where I spend my time
My understanding of the biofuel market, technology, research, and business have increased dramatically during past two months. Providing creative solutions to technical challenges we face at the plant with limited resources has also been very exciting. Fancy high-tech equipment and lab apparatus we take for granted at UC Berkeley are not available in Ghana. For example, the team needed a soil moisture sensor for a field test, and I built our own using my electrical engineering and computer science background. Using an Arduino microcontroller I brought with me and locally available galvanized nails, I programmed a resistive sensor that tells us the moisture content of our fecal sludge. Practical use of my classroom knowledge is happening every second, and this feels truly amazing.
Ghana is a fabulous place. It’s much more developed than what I initially imagined, and every moment here has been a formative experience.
Razak, my best friend in Ghana
If your image of Ghana is based on the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ or ‘Blood Diamond’, you are hugely mistaken. They are possibly the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life – no exaggeration! There have been many occasions where I was able to confirm this warm-hearted nature of Ghanaians, and they all attest to the fact that satisfaction and happiness in your life are not associated with how much money you own or how developed your cell phone is. Being in Ghana helped me develop many new positive perspectives on life.
Working with high-caliber engineers dedicated to solving global challenges in Ghana. What more can I say? I am spending the best time of my life.