Over the last decade, I have led poverty alleviation and sustainable development projects in Kenya, Tanzania, India, China and other countries. These projects range from telemedicine systems and ruggedized biomedical devices to low-cost greenhouses, solar food dryers and rainwater harvesting systems. Between the humble successes and the countless failures, I have gained a good understanding of the simplicity and complexity of challenges faced by these resource-constrained communities.
Every time I return home from fieldwork, my family and friends, my students’ parents, other faculty, and community members ask me about the projects. As I start explaining how our rural health or greenhouse businesses work, they quickly jump in, “That’s wonderful! Instead of giving them a fish, you are teaching them how to fish.” While I politely smile and acknowledge their Eureka moment, that proverb never fails to makes me cringe.
How do I tell them that Kenyans are expert fishermen, having honed their skills over millennia. In just a few minutes, they can return with a fresh Tilapia, or even a Nile Perch. The literacy rate in Kenya is 87% and most people speak English. Almost everyone has access to a cellphone and broadband internet is available across the entire country. And yet, Kenya is amongst the poorest countries in the world with access to food, safe water, sanitation, and primary healthcare a distant dream for millions of people.
The popular image of Africa, and one that is reinforced by media outlets, is based on stereotypes of endemic violence, corruption, disease and starvation. I wanted to correct this negative and oversimplified perspective. I wanted to educate readers about “how things work” in one little corner of Africa and showcase the people’s ingenuity, innovation and resilience. So I integrated my personal experiences with scientific research, statistics, norms, approaches and emotions to weave a series of short stories called The Kochia Chronicles. I conducted research specifically for this book over a three-year period and spent a year writing it. Several translators helped me navigate the context and an amazing sketch artist brought the stories to life through a series of 27 sketches.
The Kochia Chronicles offer readers a glimpse of life, problems and innovations in developing communities in the backdrop of the rapidly evolving political, social, economic, technological and global context. The stories delve into a wide range of issues including the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the schooling system, traditional alcohols, gender issues, counterfeit electronics, and the inner workings of the orphanage business. And yes, one story discusses exactly why the “teach a man to fish” adage is actually impractical in many parts of the world where highly-skilled fishermen cannot access the millions of fish in their vicinity due to a variety of cultural, economic or political reasons. So, come and join Obongo, Okello, Sister Phoebe and friends as they unravel the complexities of community challenges and design practical solutions to address them.
Khanjan Mehta is the Founding Director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) Program at Penn State. The HESE program challenges students and faculty from across campus to break down disciplinary barriers and truly collaborate to develop technology-based solutions to address compelling problems facing resource-constrained communities. The objective is to develop transformative social innovations and scalable business models to transform these technology solutions into sustainable and scalable ventures that enable and accelerate positive social change. Mehta has led technology-based social ventures in Kenya, Tanzania, India, China and other countries. These ventures range from telemedicine systems and ruggedized biomedical devices to low-cost greenhouses, solar food dryers, cell phone-based social networking systems, and knowledge sharing platforms for self-employed women.
Mehta’s research interests encompass affordable design; systems thinking; social entrepreneurship pedagogy; agricultural technologies and food value chains (FVCs); global health and telemedicine systems; cellphones, social networks and trust; indigenous knowledge systems; development ethics and grassroots diplomacy; women in engineering and entrepreneurship; and informal lending systems for micro-enterprises. The objective of these research endeavors is to democratize knowledge and mainstream HESE as a valid and rigorous area of learning, research, and engagement. He has published over 50 journal articles and refereed conference proceedings with a similar number in the pipeline.
Mehta has served on several university-wide and international committees and taskforces. He has delivered invited talks and keynote speeches on technology innovation, social entrepreneurship, and global sustainability at several universities and international conferences. The HESE program was the recipient of the 2013 W.K. Kellogg Foundation Engagement Award (Northeast Region) from APLU, 2011 Outstanding Specialty Entrepreneurship Program Award from the US Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (USASBE) and was named by Popular Mechanics as one of thirty “Awesome College Labs” across America. While these are good accolades, Mehta’s primary focus is on the HESE ventures that his students are striving to build up to multi-million smile enterprises.