Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Rice cooker fuelled by manure to help improve lives developing countries

Massey University engineering student Phoebe Azer Iskander, pictured with lecturer Andrew Drain in Cambodia, is adapting rice cookers to run on manure for impoverished villagers.
Massey University engineering student Phoebe Azer Iskander, pictured with lecturer Andrew Drain in Cambodia, is adapting rice cookers to run on manure for impoverished villagers.

A rice cooker that runs on manure is among the inventions a group of clever young Kiwi innovators are using to help improve the lives of villagers in developing countries.

As part of their studies, Massey University engineering students have been travelling to remote villages around the world and designing special innovations for them.

Their work, part of Massey's Engineering and Innovation Management major, is bringing Kiwi ingenuity to those who need it most, while helping transform the perception that people have of engineers, programme's co-ordinator Dr Aruna Shekar said.

Working alongside major companies and the global Engineers Without Borders effort, the students have designed solutions for communities as far-flung as Nepal, Cambodia, Cameroon, Zambia, Vietnam and East Timor.

Non-profit organisations working in the countries provided research ground-work around what was needed, before giving a brief to the students.

The young engineers are assigned places in companies and asked to apply their product development and design studies to projects at various stages of the commercialisation process.

So far, these have ranged from mobility aids for children with cerebral palsy to energy efficient water systems for homes, in projects that were also essentially job interviews for the students.

"The students and companies are able to get to know each other and the companies could potentially employ them when they graduate - a few of them have already been interviewed for jobs," Shekar said.

Shekar said these were helping tackle major problems developing nations were increasingly battling, including health and hygiene issues, food shortages and water filtration.

"A large number of these villages don't even have access to clean water, which is really sad."

Students had come up with affordable stove designs, and roofs made of available materials like old tyres and bamboo poles.

One stand-out was the rice cooker that student Phoebe Azer Iskander was adapting and improving, to run off manure and kitchen waste.

Iskander found that the biogas-powered rice cookers being used in Cambodian villages were breaking down, so collected faulty units for examination in New Zealand.

Some of the biogas-powered rice cookers in Cambodia that Massey University engineering student Phoebe Azer Iskander is improving by re-designing them to run on manure.
Some of the biogas-powered rice cookers in Cambodia that Massey University engineering student Phoebe Azer Iskander is improving by re-designing them to run on manure.

"They were far more corroded than I thought they were going to be, but they still thought they were worth repairing and I realised their culture was to repair, to innovate and find a solution to keep something running because it still had worth and that's a really great mind-set," she said.

"It's dramatically opposed to western cultures where we throw away faulty items for new ones, and to our lack of purpose to find a solution so that the units would stop breaking down at all."

The design process was where engineers could have the most impact, she said, because if they could keep the cookers working, the villagers were well equipped to solve any other problems.

"We weren't there to change their lives to meet our standards, but to observe and see where we could add input to make things easier."

Shekar said she was glad people were becoming more aware of the broad roles engineering offered in humanitarian work.

"We can start breaking down some of the myths around engineering, that it's only about big machines: even the smallest solution can have a big impact."

- NZ Herald

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