When you need inspiration to celebrate Earth Day, a student at Kalamazoo College will often provide it. Take Sam Meyer ’21, a physics student. His Senior Integrated Project (SIP) has applied gravitational and physical theories not only to the design, but also to the construction – through personal, international volunteer work – of a sustainable irrigation system in Pawaga, Tanzania, that conserves the region’s scarce water resources.
Both on-site and off-site, Meyer surveyed the Consolata Missionaries site in Tanzania, researched and studied fluid mechanics, helped design and install the system, and secured project funding through K’s Collins Fellowship — which helps fund student projects abroad — and donors from GoFundMe.
The project was still ongoing when Meyer returned home from Tanzania last summer after spending about seven weeks there. During that time, he said, Pawaga didn’t get even a drop of rain. However, the system he developed now sustainably irrigates about 3 acres of soil and has produced a successful harvest season. In fact, his work could offer solutions to areas around the world struggling to implement their own agriculture, as Meyer’s system fills elevated reservoir tanks with solar energy during the day, driving an electric water pump and using gravity to irrigate fields in the evening, when the sun is low and the land is cooler, mitigating evaporation.
“Not only has the system limited the labor associated with farming, it has maximized itself to the point where the mission can regularly plant crops and share excess crops with a nearby elementary and elementary school,” Meyer said. “These students come onto the campus every day, so the system encourages their education and fights malnutrition, which I find just amazing.”
Tanzania is one of several African countries that lie along the East African Rift Valley (EARV), which features an arid and rocky ecosystem that causes frequent droughts despite the general availability of water through lakes and rivers. Tanzania is one of the most developed countries in East Africa, but outside of its capital and urban centers, the villages and vast wilderness leave some populations isolated without schools and religious groups that provide some support. The scarcity prompts national authorities to levy taxes to control the water, with some irrigation practices restricted to restrictive or wasteful practices, such as flooding fields or watering water manually with buckets.
Challenges from climate change to wildlife require an improvement in the nation’s sustainable approaches to agriculture. However, volunteer organizations such as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) are promoting agricultural practices to address these challenges in Tanzania. The organization’s global movement connects visitors, also known as WWOOFers, with organic farmers, fostering cultural and educational exchanges and building a global community conscious of organic farming and sustainability.
WWOOF has a chapter in support of Father Evarist Thadei Mngulu, whose Tanzania Mission had failed in previous attempts to integrate an irrigation system and could not afford an engineer’s estimate of $16,000 for the installation. This prompted Father Evarist to seek help from WWOOF, and WWOOF found Meyer while looking for SIP ideas.
Between the Collins Fellowship and GoFundMe, Meyer raised about $3,200 which funded his entire project. Despite a language barrier and Father Evarist being the only fluent English speaking Tanzanian who generally speaks Swahili, the project was successful.
“Father Evarist wants to use the system to train other farmers in the area on irrigation practices, as their practices now consist of flooding a field, which can produce a lot of runoff and waste, or pouring water there with buckets,” Meyer said . “Through the system, he is helping to empower the community through this new technology, which is a new aspect of the mission. That makes me very happy.”
As Meyer ponders the implementation of the irrigation system, he has an offer from an engineering firm in Austin, Texas. Mears Group Inc. — an infrastructure solutions provider that provides engineering, construction, and maintenance services for the oil and natural gas, power transmission and distribution, telecommunications, and wastewater industries — was credited to Meyers SIP, the work he did in Tanzania made contributions and alerted his interest in environmental engineering. Now, Meyer will begin his post-K life in a role that promises more opportunities to improve communities as he continues to monitor the strides he started in Tanzania.
“I promoted this project during my application process and I think it was a big part of getting me the job,” Meyer said. “I mentioned the sustainability aspect and my possible interest in becoming an environmental engineer and they were excited to hear about it. I think it was a big chunk for me to get that position. We took the professional design from the original estimate and implemented it into our own design and enjoyed going abroad while I did. The people of Tanzania are so warm and friendly I had a great time. I still have some connections with friends I made there, including Father Evarist, and I’m still working on helping him and whatever else comes up.”
Sam Meyer ’21 continues to raise funds through GoFundMe that are used to support agricultural efforts, including growing crops, and to educate other communities in building their own sustainable irrigation systems. Visit his fundraiser to donate.