Sanibonani means hello in Zulu, one of the 11 official languages in South Africa. I landed in Durban, South Africa, and it took about a week for my immune system to stop being jetlagged!
My name is Trang Luu, and this past June, I graduated from MIT with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering. I decided to spend the majority of the summer after graduation in South Africa and Cameroon. This won’t be my first time to the continent of Africa. I went to Kenya and Ethiopia to work on prosthetics my second year at MIT. It’s interesting because I’ve noticed how many people would give me the same intrigued look when they hear that I am traveling to Africa. The question of “why not Europe?” usually follow closely after.
I usually just laugh, but now I think I have an answer to that question. I specifically love traveling for the opportunity to work with and learn from locals on engineering projects in developing countries. I’ve found that when I’m traveling for research, I build stronger connections and experience culture on multiple levels deeper than just the surface of pure aesthetics. And when I’m engineering for the developing world, I’m not using my education to address latent needs—I’m using my education to help someone with their basic necessities. I have always asked myself the question of what am I going to do with all the privileges that comes from having an MIT education. I know the answer now—I’m going to use it to try my very best to make the world a better place in collaboration with others.
Currently, I am in South Africa, working with an NGO called AeT on industrial cook stoves for mealies (corn) vendors. For my first few weeks, I was able to stay with a host family. My host family is incredible—I was able to have great conversation with them on the whole range of topics from psychology to life to engineering. My host family lives in Durban North and I worked with the NGO in Warwick Triangle. Because I lived and worked in two different area of the same city, I was able to meet, hear stories and have discussions with different people on topics such as apartheid, government, and social issues. I have found it easy to ask questions about personal experiences revolving around race, and I think that’s because I’m neither black nor white. I’m an Asian female, and perhaps some people feel more comfortable when talking to me because they’re not as worried about offending me—it’s a privilege that I also enjoy in America as well. In fact, I rarely consciously think about my race here, except when I get catcalled on the streets by people or when I am mistaken for Chinese instead of Vietnamese.
I get catcalled sometimes in Warwick Junction (where I work) and not Durban North because it is more of a quiet suburban area. Warwick Triangle is a busy transportation and trading hub. I specifically want to highlight the 9 markets of Warwick where informal and formal traders sell and buy. There is the Bead Market, the Bovine (cow) Head Market, Brook Street Market, Early Morning Market, Herb Market, Impepho and Lime Market, and the Victoria Street Market. Of all the markets, my favorite market is the bead market because of how unbelievably beautiful these crafts are. And the market that linger in my thoughts the longest is the Impepho and Lime Market—not because they sold lime for traditional healers, but because the women who sold them, mined the lime themselves and live where they’re selling for about two weeks before switching out. The area where they sell is literally under highway overpasses with no running water, and when it rains, the area floods. Nevertheless, these women battle it out to make their living, sacrificing comfort and safety.
I also observed the willingness to sacrifice health and safety within the mealies cooking ventures. The mealies cooks recycle 55 gallons/200 liter industrial drums to cook. About 15 dozen mealies fit in each. Before the government designated a facility for the mealies cooks to use, the cooks would just stand along the side of the road and cook on open fire. Unfortunately, it seems that the new facility does not suit the mealies cooks’ needs at all. In the middle of the facility is a roofed concrete slab, supposedly to help the mealies cooks; however, the slab is placed at such great heights that many of the cooks burn themselves trying to use it. 6 months after the installation, and still no one uses the concrete slab at all. The cooks simply place their drums on 3 stones to have space to put the fuel underneath. This method of cooking creates hostile work conditions with unbreathable amount of toxic smoke fogging up the whole facility. The drums are burning hot and are quite heavy, and once the mealies are done cooking, the cooks have to kick out the stones underneath the drum and roll the drum on its bottom edge to the drainage located outside the whole facility.
There are numerous hazards that the team have identified, but after talking to the NGO and understanding our end users significantly more, the team decided that whatever solution we choose to implement must have significant improvements and cost just the same if not less than the current 3-stone fire cooking method. With that reasoning, the team chose to tackle the problem of reducing the amount of smoke and make the stove safer to operate.
During the semester, one of the ideas that the team decided to not pursue was the idea of a horizontal stove because of resources constraints. However, once I got to South Africa, I found that it was significantly easier to source local material, to make the stove, and find a place to test the stove onsite. We decided to move forward with the horizontal stove. The first week I reread papers and researched cook stoves and stove designs—even after work and on the weekend. The 3 main advantages of this design are: more surface area of the drum would be heated up, the fire underneath would be contained and insulated, and the stove would be stationary. By the second week, I was ready to help make the stove with the head of the NGO in his workshop. Because I understood the physics of the cook stove, I was able to inform the design of the stove to optimize for efficiency in the stove. Bonus: I became very good at handling the angel grinder and ax.
During the making of the stove, I became very conscious of the fact that I am a woman engineer because of how surprised everyone acted when I was fearlessly operating tools such as the angel grinder to cut steel and an ax to chop wood. At MIT, no one bats an eye at me hacking away at metal. I did enjoy the extra validation and praises, but I felt as if I have to prove myself before I’m trusted—which, I guess is true of every new job.
When we brought our stove to the mealies cooks facility for our one chance to impress and convince the mealies cooks that our stove is safer and more efficient to use, I was extremely nervous. It was the first time we actually cooked mealies in our stove.
My boss translated everything as we attracted so many people to give their opinions and ask questions about our stove. One cook said that he would steal our design for sure. Another cook said that he could easily make our stove. And another cook said that he could make our design better and proceeded to draw us his design! Two cooks insisted on coming over to our office within the next few days so that we could show him how to make the stove!
The cook appreciated how much safer our design made for them to load in the mealies and unload the mealies. They no longer have to balance a boiling hot drum on its edge to slosh water out before reaching into the drum to unload the mealies. Our drum was still smokey because of the cooks’ tendency to over fuel, but the amount of smoke produced by our drum was significantly less than the smoke produced by their current method. My boss also noted that none of the cooks complained about the amount of smoke produced by our stove because it was significantly less. I believe the moment that the cooks were sold on our idea was when they checked if the mealies were cooked up to par. I held my breath until the cook gave us a thumb up!
The horizontal stove is a promising solution because not only does it reduce the amount of smoke for the same intensity of fire and significantly safer to use, it is also made out of locally sourced, cheap material. That means anyone can make it. Nothing in the horizontal stove was bought brand new—everything we used was scrap and recycled metal. Also, the stove was designed with our end users in mind, taking into account from how the mealies cooks prefer their fire size to how the mealies cooks load the mealies to how the cooks would empty their top drums.
With this project, I realized again how important it is to be responsible in our designs and really take the time to understand our end users—because only then, can we see the design opportunities to engineer a sustainable solution that works for them. This project has to be one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on because it pushed me to manipulate the rigid laws of physics around cook stoves to fit around the needs and constraints of my end users—the mealies cooks.
The cooks also gave the horizontal stove a name, Qedusizi, which is Zulu for “end our suffering.” I also got a nickname! Stimela, which is Zulu for train. This month in South Africa has been transformative. I met people who challenged me to think and reflect more than ever.
As I reflect on my experience in South Africa, I realized that for the longest time, I’ve always asked myself the question of “why me?” Why was I lucky enough to come to America from Vietnam? Why was I lucky enough to have the opportunity to be educated at MIT? I don’t feel any more special or unique than anyone else. I thought about that question for so long and I actually still don’t have an answer. But it doesn’t matter anyway—I stopped asking that question and started asking myself, “what am I going to do with this education and with these privileges?” And that has made all the difference.
It’s been aMAIZEing working with AeT to make the world a little bit better.
Trang Luu is a graduate student studying mechanical engineering. This summer, she will complete two MISTI internships. In June, she is working with a NGO called AeT on improving cook stoves for mealies vendors in South Africa. In July, she will be working with an agricultural start-up called CassVita on their manufacturing facilities to transform cassava into flour products in Cameroon.