Student Projects Aim at Africa's Rural Areas

Kenya's Annual Engineering Students' Exhibition showcases inventions from local universities

8 January 2009

Africa faces a lot of challenges, including high unemployment, chronic poverty, and an aging infrastructure. What it doesn’t lack is a culture of innovation, but that culture needs to be fostered in order for the region to prosper. Among those trying to help cultivate an environment in which creativity can flourish is the IEEE Kenya Section, whose members are encouraging the continent’s political and business leaders to support local innovations.

The section sponsors the annual Engineering Students’ Exhibition, which showcases marketable inventions from students, who are asked to apply their engineering skills to information and communication technologies (ICT), mobile applications, and renewable energy sources to solve a socioeconomic problem. “ICT Alternative Energy for Rural Development,” was the theme of last year’s event, held in September in Nairobi, Kenya.

“The goal of the conference is to find ways to address the divide between urban and rural areas,” says Kevit Desai, the section’s chair. “Nearly 70 percent of Africa’s population is younger than 25, and there is enormous energy for developing information communications and electronics. We want representatives from government, the private sector, and academia to see the projects and realize they need to do something to develop an environment for innovation to flourish.”

Desai says that might mean policy reforms and financial incentives for start-ups and businesses with novel ideas. “Overcoming the persistent poverty that exists depends on our enthusiasm for creating an environment that encourages businesses to try new ideas,” he says.

TRANSFORMING RURAL AREAS More than 170 projects were displayed by 250 students—40 of them women—from 15 schools in six countries, including Kenya Methodist, Kenyatta University, Khartoum University of Sudan, Makerere University of Uganda, and the University of Nairobi. Students whose projects were judged best in their category based on their creativity and presentation received laptops provided by Google, Kenya Data Networks, the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, Intel, the Communication Commission of Kenya, the Kenya ICT Board, Safaricom, and other sponsors.

Edwin Keverenge, a senior EE student at the University of Nairobi, won in the Electrons and Renewable Energy category for his green cellphone charger. He designed a hand-cranked generator that produces 5 Volts dc to charge a phone.

“Most rural areas in Kenya are not connected to the national power grid, but people there still need phones,” Keverenge says. “People are paying 50 Kenya Shillings [US $5] to charge a single handset—which is exploitative considering that most people live on less than a dollar a day.”

He says he plans to pursue his project to commercialization. He sees it as a “life-changing innovation for the common person and one that will also encourage the free flow of information in rural areas.”

“This student exhibition is a noble idea because it encourages us to develop engineering solutions to local problems,” he adds.

The Deaf Sign Language Voice Translator by IEEE Member Abdelkareem Abdelrahman, an EE student at Khartoum University, also won in the same category. He developed a microcontroller-based system to translate the Unified Arabic Sign Language to voice with the aid of speakers and sensors embedded in a glove.

The glove contains flexible sensors to reflect the finger-bending degree and a three-axis accelerometer in the dorsal side to define the hand position. The microcontroller, which includes an analog-to-digital converter, uses the converted results to recognize the hand combination. Using that information, the microcontroller generates a unique address to pass to the voice device. An embedded C-code was developed to identify the microcontroller functions and procedures.

“Most of the words need one hand, so I made my prototype with one hand because I couldn’t afford parts for the final product, which requires two hands,” Abdelrahman says.

The voice device—the speakers in an ordinary PC using Matlab software—receives the address from the PC parallel port, defines the relative voice, and plays its saved voice track through the speakers. Abdelrahman says he saves the voice tracks in the computer’s hard drive so he can call them up any time he wants.

“The exhibition is a good opportunity for students in Africa to gather and show off their innovations,” he says. “I hope that next year additional funding is available so that more students from Sudan and other countries can participate.”

For more information about the exhibition, visit http://www.engineeringexhibition.co.ke.

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