News & Notices

Engineers Without Borders fellowship delivers unexpected lessons

Edmonton—Engineers need to know the fundamentals of the disciplines they specialize in but they also need to develop effective communication skills, the ability to organize large complicated projects and to show initiative to get things done.

Those are the skills that engineering student Tanya Herbert put into practice during an international placement in Ghana with the U of A chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

Herbert, who is in her final year as an electrical (biomedical) engineering student, worked Ghana from mid-May until the end of August on a junior fellowship with the U of A student chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Her task over the summer was to find the most effective ways that Pinora, a German fruit company, could invest in Ghanian citrus famers they buy oranges and limes from.

“I was there to identify ways the company could invest in farmers in a way that would most benefit the farmers and the company by improving their yields,” said Herbert. “The job was to look for ways the company could change, to the mutual benefit of the company and the farmers.”

Because the farms are organic, no herbicides or pesticides are used and operations are labour intensive. Hacking at weeds and hardy undergrowth that springs up amid the orange and lime trees is physically demanding and time consuming, said Herbert, who did some of the manual labour herself.

“It’s just like brush—you go into the forest and just start cutting it down using these big machetes. A regular famer could do this for six, eight, 10 hours a day. You could hire 10 people and they’d get an acre done in a day,” she said.

The groves need to be fully weeded three times a year to maximize crop yields, so one good investment for the company would be to buy the farmers proper footwear and pruning tools.

“I saw farmers out there in the fields doing this work in flip-flops,” said Herbert.

Her research included interviews with the growers and the company’s field representatives, to gather ideas from both partners. Herbert eventually came up with several recommendations, including modifications to the way the fruit company collects loans and improving the logistics of crop harvest and delivery.

Interestingly, a fruit fly infestation essentially wiped out one of the orange harvests and the company was forced to quickly react to this by changing its to focus to purchasing limes; priorities changed and the recommendations seemed to have been put on the back burner. Herbert learned a somewhat unexpected lesson.

“I think I tried to move too fast,” she said. “I told them ‘OK, these are the problems you have and this is what you have to do to solve them.’ And maybe I should have suggested smaller steps, like a pilot project.

“It’s all part of change management.”

Herbert says she returned from Ghana with some valuable experiences.

“I learned a lot about organizations and organizational change and how I work,” she said. “It was a lot less of the technical side of engineering but I was in a corporate environment and I was doing consulting and dealing with management.

“I started making my own work plans and schedules and divided different initiatives into sections with timelines. I learned a lot about work and motivation and feeling good about what you do. Work can have a negative connotation but if it is something you are enjoying, it doesn’t feel like work at all.”

The U of A student chapter of EWB holds regular meetings Wednesdays at 5:15 p.m. in the Colt Design Lab, ETLC.