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Quenching water needs in Gambia

In the tight-knit village of Njau, Gambia, water shortages during the dry season leave residents without water to drink or irrigate their crops for days. The community of 2,000—mostly women and children—often struggle to get adequate nutrition and raise crops to sell.

Students hold a wooden post frame. On right is a broken fence made from branches and wire.Students make cement posts for a new, robust garden fence (left) to replace the former one (right) that was often trampled by animals during the dry season.

Ohio State’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter partnered with village leaders to design and install a solar-powered irrigation system in the community garden. By providing sustainable water access, the Buckeyes hope to extend Njau’s growing season by two months and increase their self-sufficiency.

“A lot of these women really struggle with making ends meet,” said EWB President Maggie Miles ’20, an industrial and systems engineering major.

In August 2018, six Ohio State engineering students and two mentors made their first implementation trip to the village to oversee the installation of a garden fence to keep out animals and deter thieves. 

Visiting Njau, where most residents live on $1 to $2 per day, was eye-opening for the students.

“It’s very hard living. There’s no electricity. You have to pump all of your own water. There’s no air conditioning. None of the creature comforts that we’re used to here,” said former international lead Richie Tran ’19, a mechanical engineer. “But from all of that, you see people laughing, you see people working hard.”

Melanie Sich ’19, former EWB president and a biomedical engineer, was touched by the community’s hospitality. “It was very humbling, especially seeing how supportive they were of each other no matter what and how willing they were to give anything to us.”

In December, Buckeye engineers will return to supervise the work of drilling a well, installing a pump and erecting solar panels to run the system. During a final implementation trip in 2020, the students plan to construct a water tower and install nine distribution taps throughout the village.

“We wanted to break it up because it’s a very labor-intensive project and we want to be there for important steps,” explained Dante Della Vella ’20, an industrial and systems engineering major.

A young mother with a baby strapped to her back tils the soil with a wooden tool.A young mother tills soil in Njau’s community garden.

Completing the project in phases will also ease the financial burden of the community, which is responsible for five percent of the cost.

Raising the $20,000 needed for materials and local labor to install the system is daunting, students said, but they were excited by the support they have received from Buckeye nation. During a 2018 Buckeye Funder crowdfunding campaign, 55 Ohio State engineering alumni and friends donated $4,694—107% of the original goal—to support the project.

“It was so motivating to feel the camaraderie of Ohio State people supporting this cause we are so passionate about,” said Miles.

While students join Engineers Without Borders to make a difference, many find that the hands-on engineering experience they gain benefits them long after graduation. Tran said the lessons he learned about collaboration and problem-solving have been beneficial in his new role as an Edison engineer at GE Healthcare.

“Taking on the project manager role and traveling just accelerated my growth through the roof,” he explained. “Nothing seems impossible now.”

Make a gift to support the Ohio State Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter. 

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,