Two graduates from the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at West Virginia University decided to put their professional engineering careers on hold in hopes of transforming the lives of people residing in remote villages in Sierra Leone, Africa.
Nine months ago, Matthew Asher, a 2015 mechanical engineering graduate and Toledo, Ohio, native, left his job and life in the United States behind to work in Mattru Jong, Sierra Leone, as a project engineer for UB Global. The religious nonprofit organization formerly known as Global Ministries, promotes volunteer outreach opportunities aimed at improving the quality of life for individuals in developing countries.
Asher has been working with villagers to create new and improved electricity and water systems that have the ability to generate income for a struggling hospital in the area.
In July, he reached a major milestone in the project by launching the Sola Wata Water Packaging Center, or WPC, the region’s first water treatment, packaging and distribution center.
“The Water Packaging Center provides an affordable source of clean drinking water to the local villagers, who would otherwise be drinking untreated water from shallow wells, streams or swamps,” said Asher. “Additionally, the profits of the WPC are donated to the hospital, providing cheaper and better healthcare to the community.”
Asher, who designed the building layout, obtained materials and supervised the operation, partnered with local contractors to construct the new center, which has the capacity to produce and sell more than 110,000 liters of clean drinking water per month.
“Currently, the production and delivery departments of the WPC are highly efficient in terms of time and resources, especially with just four employees,” said Asher. “Now that we have the production side down, we can focus on increasing our sales and our donations to the hospital.”
Asher plans to implement marketing strategies in order to increase sales and expand the business to neighboring villages. Fortunately, he will not have to tackle that task alone.
In early September, fellow Statler College alumnus Lizzy Kolar decided to take a three month sabbatical from her job at GE Transportation to assist Asher with his engineering project in Sierra Leone. She describes the opportunity as a dream come true.
“I chose to study engineering right outside of high school because my goal was to work with Engineers Without Borders, a group that could combine my interests in math and physics with my desire to spend my life doing volunteer work in underprivileged areas,” said Kolar, a 2015 mechanical engineering graduate from Morgantown. “When Matthew told me about his project I knew it was an opportunity too good to pass up.”
Kolar has formulated a business plan for the WPC and will be working with the center’s employees to implement standard work procedures, marketing strategies and data management systems in order to maximize production efficiency and profitability.
“It has been great having Lizzy in Sierra Leone to assist with the WPC and solar projects,” said Asher. “Combining our previous work experiences with the skills we obtained through WVU’s mechanical engineering program allows us to quickly and efficiently find solutions to any problems we encounter during our daily work.”
With Kolar’s assistance, Asher plans to move onto the next phase of the project: installation of a solar-powered system that will run the hospital’s lights and surgical equipment. This is expected to significantly reduce the hospital’s operational costs. They also plan to install a mini solar grid that will allow the hospital to sell metered power to residents within the village who currently live with limited or no access to electricity.
“One of the biggest differences between the United States and Sierra Leone is how dark it is here at night without electricity,” said Kolar. “I am excited to see the community light up at night once the solar power is installed and distributed.".”
The introduction of solar power will open the region up to a variety of new opportunities. Asher hopes to utilize the new power system to open a frozen chicken business in the region, something the villagers desperately need.
“The town of Mattru is currently lacking access to fresh meat, making it extremely hard for villagers to incorporate protein into their diets,” said Asher. “Providing the village with access to frozen meat will not only create another stream of income for the hospital but also help reduce malnutrition rates among villagers.”
Although their experience have not been without challenges, Asher and Kolar have made a tangible difference in the lives of villagers in Sierra Leone and hope their hard work and dedication will inspire others to give back to developing communities as well.
“At times work can become really stressful over here with the temperatures reaching above 100 degrees, trying to understanding cultural differences and occasionally missing home,” said Asher. “It is a huge blessing, however, to wake up every day and realize you are making a positive impact on the world.”