According to Dermot Byrne, president of Engineers Ireland and chair of Vita, engineering has a major part to play in improving the lives of communities in East Africa. Access to water, food and household energy is the key to liberating families from aid

Little did I know that after I retired in 2012, I would be as busy as ever. This year, I am delighted to be president of Engineers Ireland, while last year I took up the role of chair of Vita, an Irish development agency fighting hunger and the impacts of climate change in Africa.

Vita was first set up nearly 30 years ago, bringing emergency aid to refugees. For the last ten years, however, we have been working to deliver sustainable livelihoods to rural families in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

My interest in the relationship between poverty and access to energy goes back to 2002, when I read the International Energy Agency (IEA) World Energy Outlook, which highlighted the fact that over 1.4 billion people would still be without electricity in 2030. I thought this was totally unacceptable, both morally and economically. I contacted Dr Fatih Birol in the IEA and worked with him to arrange a high-level conference, which took place in 2005 to start to address this issue.

When the opportunity arose to get involved with Vita, I saw it as a chance to continue with this work on the ground. In 2015, I travelled to both Ethiopia and Eritrea, where I saw the impact of the programmes and met with the some of the many thousands of people with which Vita works.

Access to water, food and household energy is the key to liberating any of these families from aid and creating an environment whereby they can achieve independent, sustainable livelihoods. However, a long history of drought, desertification, war and population growth has created a rural energy crisis in this sub-Saharan region. Therefore, finding more efficient ways to cook was crucial to the welfare of over 50 million people.

The impact of this crisis has been to reduce tree cover which, in turn, creates more soil erosion, damaging the land needed to grow food and provide grazing areas for sheep and goats. There is also an immediate and terrible human cost: women and children now spend increasing amounts of their time simply finding fuel for cooking.

In some villages I visited, this can be up to eight hours a day, three times a week. Factor in the amount of time spent fetching water from distant sources and you can appreciate the many millions of hours wasted in drudgery.

Unsurprisingly, engineering and technology is already playing a big part in improving the lives of Vita’s partner communities, whether it is with newly improved and affordable solar lights or advanced biotechnology in cattle-breeding programmes.

The improved Eritrean cookstove


John Weakliam, Vita CEO and Dermot Byrne visit Adi Tekelezewan to see stoves

In Eritrea, the traditional stove (mogogo) is most commonly used inside round mud dwellings with no vents or chimneys. This produces thick, toxic smoke that impacts on all family members and is associated with around 1.6 million deaths a year in developing countries, according to United Nations agencies. The open flame is also incredibly dangerous and a major cause of injury to children, in particular.

The Energy Research and Training Centre (ERTC), part of the Eritrean Government’s Department of Energy, has designed a new and improved stove that is safer to use. I saw it in action myself when I vsited Adi Tekelezewan, near Asmara, last year and was invited by the women of that village to admire their stoves, which they proudly told me they built themselves.

The stove is a triple adjacent stove that is three times as efficient as typical traditional stoves. The improved stove has been designed to ensure complete, and efficient, combustion of the fuel used in it. The new design has improved airflow to the fire to make this possible.


The improved Eritrean cookstove

An air inlet at the base of the stove leads air into a large, cone-shaped ‘air accelerator’ and then on up towards the cylindrical fireholder. The base of the fireholder is a large, circular ceramic grate punctured by small tapered holes. These holes are wider at the bottom than the top, which further accelerates the airflow into the fire.

The holes also allow ash to fall to the floor, to be collected later. Once the fire has been lit, the fireholder is isolated by sliding down a metal door.

The sides of the fireholder are built with curved ceramic bricks that give it its cylindrical shape. These bricks are hollow and filled with insulating ash or sand to minimise heat loss to the surroundings. Two fireholders are usually constructed next to each other. They both vent to the base of a small stove used for cooking sauce, then go on up to the chimney.

The injera bread is cooked on a flat, black, clay plate that forms the top of the fireholder. With the exception of the curved ceramic bricks, the stove door, and a metal rain flap, all parts of the new stove can be made locally on site in the village. The ceramic grate and conical ‘air accelerator’ need to be made to exact design specifications.

To ensure uniformity and quality of construction, the project makes moulds for these parts in the capital, Asmara, and distributes them to the installation sites. It has an enclosed fireholder, with enhanced ventilation so that the fire burns more efficiently.

A further advantage of the stove is that it also burns a wider range of fuels than the traditional stove, working well with twigs and leaves and dried animal dung. In addition, being raised above the floor and having an enclosed fireholder, the stove is no longer a danger to children.

Vita a-home-made-improved-stove

A home made improved stove

The stove costs about €35, which includes materials and training and to date over 42,000 stoves have been successfully installed. Scientific studies have shown that a stove will save about 12 tonnes of CO2 emissions per annum.

Vita – investing in communities

Likewise, recent innovations in solar-light technology have made it a very accessible solution to lighting challenges in these villages. A robust unit can cost as little as €10 and there are, once again, great economic and health benefits. The alternative is lamps that require kerosene, which is both dirty and expensive.

The impact of solar lights cannot be underestimated. They extend the working day, allow children to study at night and during the dark days of the rainy season and enable adults to earn extra income by producing traditional craft items such as baskets, jewellery and textiles.

All of Vita’s programmes are community led and this is important. Vita teams meet with local village councils and suggest improvements, whether it is a stoves scheme, a water borehole project or the introduction of a new, climate-smart crop to an area. A community must see the benefits of change and embrace it for themselves, rather than having it imposed on them.

Another key principle is that communities contribute themselves to the improvements. In Africa, more than 40 per cent of water points are broken and the people have neither the skills nor spare parts to repair them. Vita is repairing every water borehole in Eritrea alone but, in order for a community to benefit, they must implement a 12-point plan.

This includes providing labour, nominating a designated and trained person to take responsibility for maintenance, and keeping a store of spare parts. It is this model, in which a community invests in itself in partnership with Vita, that best ensures full adaption and ownership of the improvements.


Sefate, Dermot Byrne and Damanich

We also work predominantly through co-operative models, which helps ensure equity and inclusiveness in our projects. A great example of this is the Doko Yoyere Women’s Investment and Savings Co-op, in the southern highlands of Ethiopia. It was here that I was introduced to Damenech and Sefate, two fascinating and articulate women who worked with Vita to found the co-op last year.

Vita provides seed money, training and practical skills to the 20 or so women in this co-op, who then set up small enterprises such as butter making or grain trading. A small percentage of the profit is funneled back into the co-op and used as seed money for the next twenty women. Another small percentage is set aside as savings, and can be drawn down when the women want to reinvest in their own businesses. This model has been so successful that there are now 28 of these little co-ops flourishing around this cluster of mountain villages.

Countering climate change

Vita also partners with Teagasc, the Irish Agricultural Research Agency, to improve the crops and livestock of the region, bearing in mind that these two frontline industries are the first to be affected by drought brought on by El Niño and climate change. Building resilience amongst affected communities is critical to their survival and this is achieved through education and training, improved agronomy skills and improved seeds and breeds.

The latter is a result of collaboration between bio engineers in Ireland, sub-Saharan Africa and world-class experts from around the globe. The Irish potato, for example, which was once cursed on these shores for causing famine, is now considered an important part of the solution to drought in the developing world. This is because of the improvements that breeding and biotechnology have made and are continuing to make.

Engineering has a huge role to play in combating hunger and the impacts of climate change, but I think we can all agree that there is still a long way to go. I am going to use my presidency of Engineers Ireland to highlight the role that we need to play to heal our planet, and I see my chairmanship of Vita as a natural complement to this.

I am looking for your support to raise funds for Vita and I have opened a fundraising page here. Please support this incredible cause by clicking to donate. O'RiordanElecAfrica,climate change,energy,heat,innovation,volunteering
Little did I know that after I retired in 2012, I would be as busy as ever. This year, I am delighted to be president of Engineers Ireland, while last year I took up the role of chair of Vita, an Irish development agency fighting hunger and the impacts...