St. Olaf College | News

Project in Kenya combines engineering, health care

St. Olaf College student Dan Lilly ’15 (left) and his dad, Brian, pose with an irrigation pump in Kenya. The two, along with St. Olaf students Nick Hopkins ’15 and John Koehl ’15, will return to Africa this summer to teach women living with HIV how to assemble and distribute solar-powered irrigation pumps.

Earlier this year, Dan Lilly ’15 traveled to Kenya to work on a solar-powered irrigation project supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

One month of the work wasn’t enough, however, and this summer he’ll return — with several other St. Olaf College students by his side.

Lilly spent this Interim helping his dad, Brian Lilly, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois, build solar-powered irrigation pumps out of car parts that are given to subsistence farmers in Africa.

At the same time, the St. Olaf junior was interning for Living Positive Kenya, an organization that works to provide aid to women with HIV.

The two projects began to intertwine, as the father and son team learned that they could provide food security for the women in Living Positive by setting up farms for them to operate.

“It ended up being a better fit than we could have ever expected,” says Dan, a pre-med student majoring in biology and chemistry at St. Olaf. “Proper nutrition, which is not easy to obtain in the areas we are working in, is a key component to successfully living with HIV. The primary issue the farms face is irrigation, which is currently done by hand and can take many hours a day.”

Dan spent much of his time doing both the day-to-day work at Living Positive, which included checking on the mental and physical health of the women in the program, and traveling throughout Kenya to search for sites that could serve as demos for the pumps. Dan also wrote a blog detailing his activities throughout the month, which spread awareness on the project while functioning as a status report for the Gates Foundation.

Now that they have returned home, both Dan and Brian are busy working toward their next trip to Kenya. They plan on returning in the summer with a group of students to install the pumps on the selected locations.

Accompanying Dan will be Nick Hopkins ’15 and John Koehl ’15, as well as Eric Fritzsche, an engineering student from the University of Illinois. The team will remain in Kenya for the entire summer, supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation as well as funding from the University of Illinois and Professor of Engineering Andrew Singer, where they will monitor the sites and engineer solutions to any problems that may arise.

They plan on teaching the women involved in Living Positive how to assemble and use the pumps, and to collect information on both the reception of the pumps and how they hold up under continuous usage.

“The grand vision is that the women in the HIV rehabilitation program can assemble and distribute the pumps as a way to generate income for themselves,” says Dan. “Hopefully we can demonstrate this summer that the pump more than pays for itself via the increase in crop yields compared to less efficient irrigation methods.”

If all goes well this summer, Dan plans on taking a gap year between college and medical school in order to return to Kenya to expand the project throughout the country and help set up the necessary distribution networks.

“This project has really opened my eyes to the social good that engineering can achieve,” says Dan.