“I Know These People Now” Swanson School’s Emma Baillargeon, Victoria Kennedy are part of team designing a fish farm in Mali

Issue Date: 
April 26, 2009
Victoria Kennedy (center) said she felt oddly at home in Africa because she wasn’t a minority. “It was strange to be around so many people who looked like me. When you’re suddenly in the majority, it can be ‘opening.’”Victoria Kennedy (center) said she felt oddly at home in Africa because she wasn’t a minority. “It was strange to be around so many people who looked like me. When you’re suddenly in the majority, it can be ‘opening.’”

At some point, while rumbling across 200 miles of scorching African savanna in a nine-passenger van crammed with 12 people—including a doorman whose job was not to open the door but to hold it shut—Pitt engineering seniors Emma Baillargeon and Victoria Kennedy suspected their project would be quite different than they expected.

Last May, the two women, who graduate today from the Swanson School of Engineering, joined two other Pitt students and three Pittsburgh engineers for the first phase of a student-run project to design a fish farm in Makili, Mali, a 1,400-person village in the sweltering borderland between North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Since then, the students have produced two possible designs and have raised $30,000 in support for the project. Baillargeon will join a second group of Pitt engineering students returning to Mali this month to collect more information.

Nonetheless, the project has proven to be far more challenging than Baillargeon and Kennedy had anticipated—and a more valuable experience because of it. “We thought we just had to dig a hole and throw some fish in it,” Baillargeon said, laughing. “It’s been so much more than that. A design is more difficult when the client is halfway around the world with no means for direct contact.”

She and Kennedy are members of the Pitt student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a three-year-old offshoot of the national chapter founded in 2000. The nonprofit EWB undertakes various infrastructure projects in developing countries. The Pitt chapter took on the Makili fish farm in October 2007, a few months after a Peace Corps volunteer in the village suggested it to the national EWB.

Before then, students in the Pitt chapter had primarily helped clean up abandoned lots in Pittsburgh, and they were craving their first real project, said Baillargeon, a Rochester, N.Y., native who joined EWB in Spring ’07 and served as chapter president this year. “The students who started this chapter thought we could do more than clean abandoned lots,” Baillargeon said. So, the fledgling group, with no money and only a few professional mentors, applied with EWB to build a fish farm in Makili.

In truth, the project was to improve the fish farm already in Makili. But the active definition of “fish farm” proved to be a dusty depression in the ground, as Kennedy found when the group reached Makili. She and Baillargeon had traveled with Pitt physics junior Jeffrey Fein, since-graduated Pitt civil engineering senior Michael Bozek, and three professional engineer mentors from the Pittsburgh EWB chapter established in 2007.

A double major in civil and environmental engineering and architectural studies, Kennedy worked on the team conducting land surveying and site assessment. The situation: The depression filled during the Malian rainy season, which lasts approximately from June to September. The villagers fill the pond with fish captured from irrigation ditches. The pond vanishes in six months from absorption and evaporation. The Pitt group was there to make the pond last longer.

“None of us knew a thing about fish farming, and it turned out we didn’t have a lot to work with when we got there,” Kennedy said. “We had limited resources and had to make a lot of assumptions. It was trial and error. I think we took for granted the tools we have here. In class, we have everything we need. Out there, we didn’t.”

The Pitt EWB technical team used the survey information to design a deeper pond with a smaller surface area, which would reduce evaporation, explained tech team member Brian Lucarelli, a Pitt civil and environmental engineering senior graduating in December. “We thought we could implement it in a week,” he said.

Then one of their professional mentors returned to Makili in March to vet the design with the villagers. It was way too small. The deluge Makili receives each year would flood the pond, something the students wouldn’t have known in May during the 115-degree dry season. The group going to Mali this year will collect data on the local watershed, ground slope, and rainfall, Lucarelli said. The current ideas are a variation of the first idea or to construct a reservoir that would regulate the pond’s depth.

“There are always a lot of lessons when you screw up and have to start over,” Lucarelli said. “It was a dose of real-world engineering. Instead of starting with standards, you have to get the unique specifications for that area, and we have a better idea now of the information we need. We wavered over building it or doing another assessment. We didn’t want to let the community down, but we didn’t want to build something that would make its situation worse.”

Mali ranks among the world’s poorest countries. Kennedy, from Lansdale, Pa., has experienced developing-nation poverty in her parents’ native Trinidad and Jamaica. Makili was even more shockingly basic, she said: buckets and holes in the ground for toilets, no electricity, legions of children, and full-on exposure to the elements, at once harrowing and enchanting.

“I’d never been camping, so on the first night I tried to prove myself by sleeping directly on the ground—that’s a bad idea,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know what bit me, but it stung for an hour. But the stars seemed huge out on the dark plain. That first night, I couldn’t sleep anyway. There was a wedding celebration. People were drumming for six hours.”

Baillargeon particularly struggled with moving ahead or returning to the drawing board. A bioengineering major, she worked on health assessments and quality-of-life surveys to help gauge the effectiveness of the fish farm once it’s complete. She had little involvement in collecting the technical data. What struck her was the village chief, a man in his 70s who gratefully explained that this project would help his poor village survive.

“That’s when I realized how major this is,” Baillargeon said. “I felt the pressure to really do our best. Our biggest success was to get their input, but it was hard to accept that our original plan didn’t work. I’m looking forward to seeing them again, but now there’s a lot more pressure.

“Last year, Makili was another place on the map, but I know these people now. I know what this means to them, and I feel like they’ll want to know what we’ve done. This isn’t a project we can take lightly—it’s about their lives.”