Posted by: DHE Rwanda | June 25, 2012

We’re Back!

Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering has returned to Rwanda to implement a hydropower system near Rugote, the top site from last summer’s assessment trip.

Alex Reeder and Wiley Dunlap-Shohl arrived in Rwanda last week and have been busy meeting with NGOs, government officials, Rwandan engineering students and professors in Kigali to prepare for construction in Rugote.

Natalie Burkhard and Kevin Francfort should get in to Kigali today, if their flights work out.

More updates to come later.

– Kurt Kostyu

Posted by: DHE Rwanda | September 5, 2011

More photos!

We’ve uploaded more photos from the trip to our Picasa album:



Posted by: DHE Rwanda | September 4, 2011

Looking for waterfalls part 2

Hey all, it’s been a while since I’ve given an update on how our site assessment and NGO search has been going, and actually, it’s going great!  This section of the project is all about setting up DHE for next year and beyond.  Picking a site with good physical characteristics and demographics is crucial so that we can be as prepared as possible to implement next year.  An NGO partner will facilitate relations with village leaders, provide logistical support and monitor the project when we leave the country— and generally let us focus on project work rather than all the myriad details that go into living and working in a foreign country.

In our efforts to find potential sites we spent weeks searching Rwanda from top to bottom, which entailed hours of bumping along dirt roads in a jeep asking startled Rwandans for directions towards “amazi isumo” (waterfalls). We used the Ministry of Infrastructure’s Hydropower Atlas as our guide (way cooler than a Lonely Planet!) but were still met with mixed success as the waterfalls we’re looking for are small and generally very isolated.

One of the low points of site assessment. After a 4km hike, we're standing in the Gashure River. No one told us that it has no flow during the dry season.

On the plus side, we definitely generated a lot of gossip for rural Rwandans—there’s nothing quite like a bunch of lost mzungus wandering around the countryside to stir up interest and curiosity. Driving past a schoolyard in a jeep was a frequent, unique experience too—it felt like a parade, as we’d elicit huge cheers, waves, and a chorus of “How are you!”s as we blew past, trailing a scattering of excited kids running after us.

The Rwandans are clearly pretty interested

We also met with a ton of NGOs around Kigali, which was an odd experience akin to humanitarian speed dating. Eventually we connected with CARE International, a large NGO that’s really interested in our project.  We explained what we needed to assess sites and they kindly set us up with one of their Land Cruisers (as the head of the NGO search, it’s been my dream to ride around in one of those) a driver and one of their field officers for two days of site assessment around Butare.

The couple of days that Ted and I spent in and around Butare were awesome.   We got a day early and checked out the town.  Despite the fact that it’s the third largest city in Rwanda, it’s basically just one paved road and one dirt road with a market and some shops and restaurants.  The highlight was eating at “THE CHINESE RESTAURANT” where we had to wait over an hour for our amazing chicken dish so that they could buy the chicken from the market, pluck it and prepare it.

On two days of site assessment we saw seven sites, three of which are great candidates for next year.  One site had a physical layout that would be relatively easy for us to exploit, and it was right next to a road, so villagers could easily walk of even ride their bikes to the charging station with their battery.  The next site was a bit less accessible and more difficult to exploit, but not too far from a larger village with a school and a market.  The final one was less accessible, but easy to exploit, and the people in the two nearby two neighborhoods currently have a three hour walk each way to charge their cell phones or batteries.

Ted...measuring flow?

Hanging out at one of the top sites for next year

Easily the coolest part of the site search is the sites themselves; they’re jewels that stand out even in Rwanda’s already stunningly scenic countryside.  It’s an amazing experience to pull over at a completely random path and hike out down into a valley, asking nearby Rwandans for directions as you go—then you hear the falls—and sure enough, around the next corner there’s a gorgeous 60-foot waterfall cascading down rock nested among eucalyptus trees in another one of Rwanda’s charming hillsides.  We’re getting an amazing look at Rwanda—the real Rwanda, not just Kigali or the gorillas in the highlands. I’m surprised they don’t feature hydro prospecting on more tourist itineraries!

Standard rural Rwanda. Beautiful.

So after looking at sites for two days, one thing is clear: we’d really like to work with CARE on next year’s project and in the future.  They’re just as excited about the project as we are, have the resources to help us, and have an awesome reputation and relations with people in the area.  Aside from sweet cars, CARE has field officers with knowledge of every sector in southern Rwanda, connections with all of the local leaders, and a micro-finance projects that could help villagers to afford the cost of a small battery.

Our plan now is to talk with e.quinox (7 more of them arrived today from London!) over the next two days and decide on a site.  We’ll then head out to the site again for a full day to gather information about the physical features and to conduct a survey of businesses, households and other stakeholders. It’s really exciting to watch the future of the project unfold!

It’s going to be a crazy last week and a half for all of us, with loose ends to take care of with NGOs, government authorities, KIST students and faculty, site assessment and finishing the system in Banda.  Oh yeah, we’ll try to get an update on Banda when we can.  The only reliable way to communicate with them is through text, so sometimes it’s a bit of a mystery what’s going on.  As far as I know the mechanical setup is looking great and the electrical is getting there, with a few issues that the group is working on now.

Mechanical setup in Banda. Looking great!

I’ll be heading out there on Tuesday to work on community education with a few KIST students who have translated a bunch of documents on safety and maintenance procedures for technicians and customers of our system.  Hopefully I’ll also have a chance to work on erosion prevention in Banda and maybe check out a couple nearby potential sites for the future.  Then some of us will probably head to Butare to check out whichever site we choose for next year, and then we’ll only have a few days left in the country!!  Crazy!




Unrelated to the post, but what is Yi doing?

Posted by: DHE Rwanda | September 1, 2011

Respect to the Class of 1980

By the way, we just wanted to give a quick shout out to the class of 1980, who sponsored the final design project (ENGS 89-90) that, in large part, made this trip as successful and awesome as it’s been so far. Thanks a lot guys, I speak for all of us when I say that we really appreciate the contribution.

See you next week,


Posted by: DHE Rwanda | August 31, 2011

We’re Still Alive, and We’ll Have More Pictures Soon

Hola compadres! Just a quick update on what we’re all up to. Right now most of the team is in Banda: Mike, Emily, Wouter and Collin have been steadily working on the turbine, which is now spinning like it should with a beautiful power curve and putting out about half a kilowatt; Yi is wrapping up the surveys and slated to return on Friday. We bid our sad farewells to Richard and Mikolaj last week when they left for more northern climes; the rest of team e.quinox is in Tanzania working on one of their solar projects, but late this week a whole new crew of them is coming through. Ted and Joey left for Butare to do site assessment in the Southern Province at noon today, leaving me all alone (snif) to source parts in Kigali. I’ll be traveling to Banda tomorrow morning with a cargo of said parts for the system and first world fripperies for our long-suffering friends who are probably by now thoroughly sick of rice and beans. I’ll return next week and hopefully have a bunch of pictures of the working system! And maybe the beautiful power curve. Take care y’all.



Posted by: DHE Rwanda | August 24, 2011

As Easy As Drilling Six Holes… Right?

Hey all, sorry for the delay on the post, we’ve had a fairly busy week trying to prepare everything for half the team’s return to Banda to do the repairs on the site, and looking for an internet connection reliable to put up all the photos in this post. Most of the work to the former end has been involved with the attempts to ready the mechanical parts (turbine, nozzle, casing) for implementation. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll try to forgo my usual verbosity in favor of a more visual-heavy post. I’m bummed that we didn’t take any pictures of the Gakinjiro Market, where they sell wood, scrap metal, and other building materials, and where we purchased most of the material for the casing; like most of the other open air markets in Kigali, it’s huge and sprawling. A to the characteristic hustle and bustle the whine of many many angle grinders all running at once, the UV-spitting zaps of stick welders, and the smell of burning metal, all under the beating of the equatorial sun, and that’s the complete sensory overload that is Gakinjiro. Dickering with the scrap merchants in the midst of all this made for a very long day, let me tell you. The best way to get a fair price at the market is the “leaden butt” method of negotiation – basically, the longer you’re willing to stick it out in the market, the lower the merchants are willing to drop the price (though whether it’s worth the few dollars you save on a piece of scrap steel is something Collin and I wondered more than once that day)  – so you can end up spending a fair bit of time there.

The parts purchased, we headed to KIST the next day for the (usually) fun part: machining! The angle iron for the casing had to be cut up into the right size pieces (they come in 6 meter lengths as stock, which were just a bit too large for our purposes). Since KIST didn’t seem to have a bandsaw and using a hacksaw would have been miserable for the twenty-some cuts we had to make, they pulled out the shop’s only angle grinder, which is both the most terrifying and most fun piece of machinery I’ve ever used (see below). The burning shards of steel are also hell on your clothing, though not as painful on your skin as you might expect.

Resident hard guys Collin and Wouter grind some angles.

Collin and I keep track of the different length pieces, trying to machine them to spec (and generally failing by several millimeters). Fortunately the casing dimensions weren’t particularly important, so long as the pieces that needed to be equal lengths were sized accordingly, and a couple seconds’ work with the angle grinder were all it took to shave off the extra material.

After we cut the pieces at KIST, we took them to a rather more well-equipped garage, E.T.O. Muhima, in downtown to assemble the casing (we caught KIST at sort of a bad time – final projects were due around the time we were trying to machine, which is every bit as hectic as back at Thayer).

A mural outside E.T.O. Muhima. I took this picture mainly because Tintin’s in it1.

Machining at E.T.O. Muhima had its own set of problems, due to misinterpretation (and on a couple of occasions, disappearance) of the drawings. A couple corners from the pieces were cut incorrectly (undesirable but not a serious problem), and the casing nearly got assembled inside out (both undesirable and a serious problem since we wouldn’t have been able to bolt the top and bottom together). It was times like these when I would have given a great deal for an encyclopedic knowledge of Kinyarwanda. Most of the technicians didn’t speak English and the ones who did were frequently occupied with other tasks, so it usually fell to the machinists and the engineering students to try to discuss the finer points of casing construction using a combination of gestures and pidgin versions of each other’s languages. As to which of the above methods was more effective I couldn’t say, but all things considered, the casing came together amazingly well, though it took longer than we might have hoped. Of course, this was all in accordance with the first law of machining, which states that everything will take at least five times longer to make than you think it will. I think this must be some sort of corollary to the second law of thermodynamics, Murphy’s Law, or maybe both.

Yi and Emily inspect the partially completed casing.

No matter how you care to express the first law of machining, it manifest itself brutally when we tried to finish the final part of the turbine assembly. The turbine runner (for those of you who aren’t mechanically inclined, this is the part that catches the water jet) is attached to the shaft by means of a collar that bolts on to the runner and clamps onto the shaft.

We already had the bolt pattern drilled in the runner, so all we had to do was drill and tap (put threads in, for bolts or screws to attach) the holes in the collar flange. Simple, right? We certainly thought so, expecting maybe a hour’s work on the drill press at KIST. But the problem with what we were trying to do with drilling all those holes in the flange was that those holes were smaller than the holes in the runner (they have to be, otherwise the tap won’t fit and the hole will be useless), which we were using to determine the bolt pattern. Drilling a hole dead center inside a larger hole is hard enough when you have a solid machine with a digital readout and can clamp the pieces together so tightly that Hercules himself would get a hernia if he tried to pull them apart. When you have a drill press that moves around if you so much as look at it funny, no satisfactory clamp, and several holes that have to be aligned to within a fraction of a millimeter, you end up playing a game you can’t win. So we took this problem to E.T.O. Muhima as well to use a larger and more reliable press. Even so, we still had trouble aligning the holes, and after several futile attempts to do so, we decided to abort the current plan for fear of turning the flange into a hunk of metal Swiss cheese. By this point half the garage had turned up, all arguing vigorously in Kinyarwanda about the best way to proceed, which didn’t help the already palpable tension in the room one bit. Fortunately, while bemoaning the fact that we hadn’t just drilled the stupid holes in the flange back in the States, where we had a nice Bridgeport with a digital readout and a dial indicator, or better yet, drilled the holes in the flange and the runner all in one go, we realized that we could still do this. The current bolt pattern in the runner still left plenty of room for a new one, so we clamped the pieces together and started from square one. As it turned out, we spent far less time doing this than deliberating what to do, not to mention the hours we spent drilling all those useless holes in the flange.

The mechanical team (minus Collin, plus a couple Rwandan technicians) trying to figure out what to do. I’m hard at (totally pointless, as it turned out) work with a file.


In the meantime, the casing was coming along swimmingly.

An unorthodox but apparently effective method of steadying the casing for drilling holes.

Emily and Wouter with the technicians.

Whoops – looks like I’m well over a thousand words. I’d better stop now. More later. I’ll leave you all with this last picture that got accidentally left out of a previous post. I like to think of it as “Mama Ted and Baby Ted.”



1 Personal note: I was kind of surprised to see Tintin here, considering that he’s the hero of an extremely racist comic book set in the country next door. It was titled “Tintin in the Congo,” but might as well have been called “Tintin Civilizes the Savages” or worse for all the cultural awareness it showed. Fortunately it’s not that well known these days; Herge, its author, at least had the grace to be ashamed of it later in life, and its presence in the pantheon of Tintin books has waned significantly. I still find it distressing, especially since I grew up on the Tintin books and looked to the fearless boy reporter as a sort of role model. The brute in the Congo barely resembles the pure, noble soul of the later books; only the sweater vest, plus-fours, and stupid little tuft of hair are the same. If I were a Rwandan, I probably wouldn’t want him on the wall of my garage, but I’ve noticed that many Africans are unaware of some of the uglier aspects of Western culture (the kid I saw in the Kimironko market wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt comes to mind), so maybe that’s why a onetime symbol of colonial oppression gets the place of honor on the garage wall.

No photos yet, but the full turbine set up has been mounted in the turbine house at Nyiragasigo (the Ben Koons turbine site) and spins when you spray water on it. That may not sound like much, but muzungus (all 5 of us) were careening through the streets with tears streaming down our faces.

We’ve had to chip out a big hole in the wall of the turbine house to align the penstock (pipe going down the hill to the turbine) exactly forty-five degrees with the nozzle that shoots the high velocity jet of water on the turbine. Also in one phase of testing a t-shirt was used to plug the top of the penstock so we could work in the turbine house sans water spraying everywhere, the t-shirt was sucked down through the pipe, got stuck near the nozzle, and exploded a PVC elbow due to water hammer (high pressure water). No one was hurt and sopping wet laughs were shared by all.

Electrically, we’ve been struggling with trying to fix the Morningstar Tristar solar charge controllers that the 2008 team put in. The solar charge controllers are a hardy and ingenious device that work great for hydro, but there’s three “voltage suppressors” that keep blowing up inside and its anyone’s guess (including Morningstar) as to why. With a well thought out system, rigorous testing, and desperate international phone calls made to our advisors we hope to understand the issue and start charging batteries for people soon.

Meanwhile we’re continuing the micro-grid survey and feasibility study, and there are those of us who see this as a fantastic and sustainable piece of engineering that could really set Banda up for meaningful development in the coming years. The town just won’t be able to meet its goals of building a maternity ward, library/computer lab, and eco-lodge without it. The village is extremely excited by the idea of wires bringing electricity to their shops and homes, and are insistent that they can pay for it and provide the manual labor. Occasionally Bandans remind us that the 2008 team’s hydro sites brought Banda out of the stone age – it’s not hard to imagine affordable, accessible, and plentiful energy bringing Banda right up to the new millennium.

Hydraulically yours,


Posted by: DHE Rwanda | August 18, 2011

The Banda Chronicles, Vol. 3: Any Pants in a Storm

Fortunately for me, my shorts at least dried out by the next day, so I was not forced to go pantsless on our next excursion. Ever helpful, the village had identified a couple of sites they thought night be suitable for implementing a microgrid, so we got up at 7 (blah) to trek around the hills with a troop of villagers, as well as Sarah and Jarod. They had two sites in mind, but it turned out that neither was practical for electrifying Banda. The first was about 45 minutes’ walk from Banda and might have been about right for a cross-flow turbine, but wasn’t practical for our purposes. The second one, it transpired, was practically all the way back into Murambi, so we wrote that one off as well. That afternoon, we returned to Nyiragasigo to determine what repairs needed to be undertaken and explore potential for expansion, along with Elise, Thomas, Theogene, a villager named either Roland or Laurent (Rwandans tend to mix up r’s and l’s, so it was hard to tell which), and the usual gaggle of spectating toddlers. The path up was still slick from the previous day’s rain, and we could see why the villagers weren’t exactly stoked about using the site, even when it worked perfectly. Here’s why.

Mad slippery.

Imagine trying to walk up or down this. Not too bad, right? Now imagine doing it after, or worse yet, during one of those torrential African downpours. Now imagine trying to do it while carrying a fifty pound, acid-filled hunk of metal and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the villagers’ objections.On our last visit to the site, following one of these deluges, Ted, Emily and I all wiped out on the way down. Then it started to rain yet again, so for the third time in four days we booked it for the guesthouse in sodden clothes over muddy paths. But at least we had a new can of Nido.

Our last day in town was, by and large, uneventful; we met with Pascal to discuss plans for the team’s return in a week, and visited the Friday market. On Saturday, we made the long trek up the hill to get back to the bus station and played a pickup game of ultimate Frisbee with Jeremiah and some of the other friends we’d made that week, then boarded the bus for the five hour bus ride back to Kigali, the first hour of which was nauseating. We weaved back and forth on the crummy forest roads; poor Ted got thrown up on by the girl sitting next to him, and I felt less than stellar myself. But all things must end, good or bad, and soon enough we found ourselves back in Kigali, ready for the next set of adventures.



Posted by: DHE Rwanda | August 6, 2011

New photos on Picasa!

Check it out:

The walk back from Murambi was eventful. Emily wasn’t feeling well, so Emmanuel volunteered to give her a ride back to town on his motorcycle. Ted, Mike and I assured Emmanuel and Pascal (who was still in meetings) that we could find our way back on our own; even so, Emmanuel gave us a sheet of paper with the words “Mwibanda ni hehe?” written on, which roughly means “where is Banda?” So Emily and Emmanuel motoed off, and Los Tres Amigos set off on foot, jesting about the ominous black cloud off in the north that was moving in our direction with alarming speed. About half an hour into the walk, as the sky grew darker, hordes of kids started tearing by us on the way down the hill, and not long after we followed their lead and quickened our pace, holding banana leaves over our heads as the rain began to pour. And pour it did, until we were completely sodden tramping through veritable rivers running down the roads as little kids pointed and laughed and ran alongside; at one point, the road took us through a school full of at least two hundred kids gathered to see the spectacle. Eventually, we ran into Emily and Emmanuel, who were taking shelter in someone’s house. We kept walking, expecting them to catch up to us, later, after the rain let up.

Thing about these tropical rainstorms is they’re very reluctant to let up. In America and elsewhere I’ve been in rainstorms as intense and I’ve been in rainstorms as long, but never experienced one with quite the same fury and tenacity as the African variety. Shortly after we left Emily and Emmanuel, the storm began to break in earnest, replete with rolling thunder than echoed off the mountains and lightning bolts striking unsettlingly and deafeningly close: on several occasions there would be a flash of light arcing towards the nearest hilltop (often no more than forty or fifty feet away), followed closely by the most awful ripping sound I’ve ever heard. After about half an hour later, our predicament was compounded when we hit an unfamiliar fork in the road. The few villagers we met were not particularly helpful; “Mwibanda ni hehe” might as well have meant “where can we buy pig snot” for all the help we got. Luckily for us, we only wandered for about fifteen minutes before meeting Emily and Pierre, the agronomist from Kageno picking their way down the road, she on foot and he on the moto, trying to guide it down the slippery road. Pierre directed us down the right path (which was not obvious at all), and we continued in the right direction without further incident all the way back to Banda. And still the rain refused to let up, though we remained in inexplicably high spirits for the entirety of the walk. It was a blessed relief to get back to the house, though, I’ll tell you that; everything we had was soaked; clothes, backpacks, cameras, notebooks, wallets, phones, you name it. But none of that mattered when there was a hot pot of water for a shower and steaming cups of Nido1 to drink.

It continued to rain intermittently during the week, to the confusion of the locals and our consternation. We’re still a good month away from the rainy season, and, as people constantly emphasized, it never rains like this in the dry season. During the breaks in the rain, we would visit the sites, the village leaders, or Sarah and Jarod. We toured the active Kigogo site during one such lull, where the state of the electronics horrified Mike and the state of the civil works horrified everyone else.



Still works, though between overcharging and deep discharge the batteries are undergoing some rough treatment, and their lifetimes have been suffering as a result (this was a frequent complaint among battery users). But at least people are still getting some use out of it, even if batteries aren’t the ideal solution. The next day Mike and Ted went back to inspect Kigogo more closely, while Emily, Sarah and I met some of the big names in the village. They are, as follows:

–          Pascal: village leader, pretty much self-explanatory.

–          Thomas: one of the hydro site technicians

–          Elise: our translator and local director of Kageno.

–          Daniel: the night guard at the guesthouse

–          Tanas (sp?): representative of the local businessmen

–          Augustin: the richest man in town

–          Samson: pastor of the local Pentecostal church

–          Emmanuel (different from the former hydro site manager): headmaster of the primary school

–          Solomon: director of studies at the primary/secondary school

Absent from the meeting was Jeremiah, the head of Kageno’s clinic and an all-around good guy. He was either busy or out of town at the time. The leaders all pitched their opinions about electrification and batteries (there were more than a few requests for better batteries so their TVs could run for longer) and also a number of more pressing concerns, illumination being first and foremost, with other electronics close behind, especially for administrative and educational purposes (“you can’t teach kids how to use computers if you don’t have computers” – I couldn’t have said it better myself). Apparently, the Rwandan government, in one of its frequent bids to improve the lot of its citizens, has been trying to put a “One Laptop Per Child” program into effect, but Banda being Banda, this has been slow in coming and in any case it’s pointless to have power-intensive electronics without a reliable source of power.

We met Jeremiah and the other clinic staff in the afternoon the day after that, and they had ideas of their own about power; Kageno is opening a maternity ward soon, as well as a lab, and this requires a fair bit of power as well. He showed us around the clinic, where they already have several consultation rooms and even an operating room for minor surgery. Afterward, we had a look at some of Kageno’s other facilities; the nursery school is right next door to the clinic, as well as some small-scale dairy farming and recycled paper briquette making. The nursery school also has a large world map that Sarah and Jarod recently painted; apparently most students’ grasp of geography is remarkably poor, to the point of being ignorant of the number of continents and locating Rwanda in South America when asked to point it out on a world map.

In the meantime, it had started to rain in a torrential downpour again, with the concomitant thunder and lightning we’ve come to expect. It’s only a ten minute walk from Kageno to the guesthouse, but we nevertheless got completely soaked again. This was especially distressing for me, as by then I had run out of dry pants – my other pairs were hanging on the clothesline, getting wetter than they had been, if anything – and nobody had any other pairs to spare, so I spent the rest of that evening robed in a towel for lack of anything better to wear.

Yet another episode of Mzungu TV


To make matters worse, we were out of Nido.


1 Nido is Nestle-brand dehydrated cream, which sounds disgusting but did wonders when added to tea or coffee, or when you added tea or coffee to it – it wasn’t always clear which taste dominated – and we developed this weird fascination with it over the course of the week in the village, as well as a number of in-jokes which I won’t try to explain. It’s funny what you appreciate when your options are limited. We lived like kings in Banda – relatively speaking – but even so things like meat, eggs, and Nido were luxuries during the week we stayed there, and I think the most dismayed any of us got that entire week was when we ran out of Nido. I still blame Mike and his midnight raids.

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