Partners Both Home and Abroad Help Advance VPI’s BioD Project

Over the years, Vort Port International’s BioD project has truly developed into a partnership between social entrepreneurs and students in the U.S. and in Madagascar. What started off with a handful of engineers and business specialists here in the States has evolved into a team of dedicated students and professionals with a wide range of expertise in both countries.

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BioD strives to implement human-centric solutions to pertinent issues in Madagascar, and is working with two outstanding partners there. Over the past two years, BioD has been collaborating with engineering students at The University of Antananarivo, who have been involved in the assessment, design, and prototyping phases of the project. And within the University’s Institut pour la Maitrise de l’energie, five engineering students seeking their masters degree have constructed a prototype of the BioD and are currently testing the device. All the materials used by this team as well as the inputs for testing come from Madagascar and will provide us with benchmark data essential for scaling up. Over the next two years, as the BioD project progresses to the implementation phase, these students will play a crucial role in the deployment of the biodigester technologies in rural Malagasy communities. Through this partnership we are promoting local knowledge and skill development that will outlast the BioD Project and hopefully inspire other initiatives to improve the standard of living in Madagascar.

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The BioD team has also partnered with the Rotaract Club AVANA, which is based in the capital city of Antananarivo and whose members are young professionals with backgrounds ranging from finance to marketing to information technology. Their focus is to give back to their local community through education and empowerment projects. The Rotaract Club has assessed rural communities in Madagascar where the BioD will be prototyped, which consisted of a needs analysis and a survey of locally available materials, and has initiated a partnership between the BioD Project and our partner communities. The Rotaract Club members are also assisting with the education plan of the project, which seeks to deliver environmental and human health information to community stakeholders.

And closer to home, in September 2013 BioD launched a partnership with the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. This partnership will add the support of students and faculty from their Global Human Development program. The Georgetown team has already submitted the BioD concept for a social enterprise competition through the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA). Faculty members with decades of development expertise will serve as mentors on the project.

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These partnerships and the ones we hope to develop in the future will ensure that the solutions we deliver are culturally appropriate and sustainable in the long run. BioD aims to spark a culture of entrepreneurship in Madagascar that will last beyond our project and take on the challenges of tomorrow.

This blog post was written by Rahul Mitra, VPI BioD Project Co-Director

VPI Member Spotlight: Patrick Kwiatkowski and Joe Zook

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History is full of dynamic duos — two talented individuals who find that they can accomplish more by working together. Lewis and Clark. Woodward and Bernstein. Aykroyd and Belushi. Kwiatkowski and Zook. Never heard of the last pair? Well you will, or at least you’ll soon know of their work covering Vort Port International’s (VPI) efforts to enable low-income communities globally to gain access to basic necessities through education, training, and innovation of sustainable technology-based solutions.

VPI’s media team members Patrick Kwiatkowski and Joe Zook both grew up in northern Michigan — Kwiatkowski in the tiny town of Cheboygan, Zook in the even tinier town of Reed City. Their paths crossed when they both were students at Grand Valley State University, having been drawn to video production for similar reasons — each wanted to use storytelling as a way to create social change.

“I find it rewarding and invigorating to survive in a natural environment with only the most essential tools,” Zook explains. “But, perhaps paradoxically, I’ve also always been fascinated with media and creating a record of events that can be engineered to tell a story. I eventually developed an interest in combining the two.”

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During college Zook had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout China, shooting documentary and anthropology footage of people operating in an environment far removed from the “modern” world of technology and luxuries, and much more reliant on immediately available natural resources. Traversing through the Himalayas and observing the unelaborate lifestyles of small rural communities helped cement Zook’s interest in exploring the ultimate simplicity of human existence through the complicated technological medium of digital video.

Kwiatkowsk also studied film/video production in college, and found that while he enjoyed producing student work in the film program, he was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the industry itself, finding it to be aggressive, self-important, and wasteful. Wanting to explore film as a means of social discourse and public good, he switched his emphasis to nonfiction media and produced two short documentaries as well as promotional material for the United Way of Ottawa County before graduating.

After college both friends ended up in Brooklyn, working in various types of media production. One day Kwiatkowski received a call from Merry Walker, a friend of a friend, who was looking for a volunteer to produce media content for the new nonprofit she had recently co-founded. Kwiatkowski became the media director for VPI, producing video content for the organization and its projects. He soon recruited Zook to help produce promotional content for each project, utilizing footage shot overseas by other VPI members as well as content produced domestically.

“Joining up with VPI was a no-brainer for us,” Zook shares. “Developing media for an organization that supports renewable and sustainable energy initiatives for the base of the economic pyramid was precisely the opportunity that we were both looking for to contribute our skills and passion for media to a cause that mirrored both of our own personal credos.”

Since joining VPI, the team has produced promotional videos domestically for the organization, as well as provided opinions and insight from a media-minded perspective. They also shared some valuable “training” advice (as well as comic relief) during a series of videos leading up to VPI’s EmpoweRun 5K fundraiser last spring.

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“The case is made overseas, and the projects are welcomed by those we’re aiming to help. It’s now time for these projects to make their case domestically, and that is where Joe and I come in,” says Kwiatkowski. He is currently working on a live-action spot shot in Washington, D.C., which showcases the prototype bamboo bike in use for Bandha Bikes, a project based in Uganda. And Zook, with the help of artist Valerie Light, is producing a short animation piece introducing the BioD project, based in Madagascar. Both are moving quickly to finish promotional material that can help raise much-needed funds for these two projects, and afterwards they will refocus their efforts on a new spot promoting the organization as a whole.

“Working full-time elsewhere, and spread between other video projects, it can be difficult to find the time to produce enough worthy content for an organization doing so much,” Kwiatkowski admits. The team often relies on the footage shot by other members during their assessments overseas (usually on their smartphones), creating some production challenges. In the future, hopefully there will be funds in the budget for them to travel abroad and document first-hand VPI’s trials, tribulations, and successes in order to better tell the organization’s story as a nonprofit and promote the causes of each project.

“It would be a thrill and an honor to produce content hand-in-hand with the people we work with on the ground overseas, and I’m sure one day we’ll get there,” says Kwiatkowski. “Until then, we are happy to do what we can here in the U.S. Producing content with little to work with puts us in a situation that demands creativity. I like to think Joe and I are up to the challenge.”

Kwiatkowski became a first-time dad in July and hopes to impart on his daughter the importance of being a global citizen, and to do one’s part in a world increasingly stretched thin.

Zook couldn’t agree more. “Ultimately, my goal for this organization is to establish and sustain an active, relatable, and provocative media presence that educates, sparks interest, encourages the public to engage with our organization, and inspires them to utilize their own skillsets to contribute to good causes within and outside of their own communities.”

This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.

Our Honorary Founding Members

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When Vort Port International (VPI) was conceptualized and incorporated in January 2010 I was fortunate to have the help of five remarkable co-founders: Ellen Faulkner (formerly Creal), Phillip Dixon, David Yeung, Paul Jawlik, and Marianna Oykhman. VPI derived its name from the words “vortex” and “portal,” which conveyed our mission of bringing people, resources, energy, and ideas together to solve fundamental global problems through technology and entrepreneurship. The organization quickly gained followers and members interested in working towards this cause.

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The volunteers who joined soon after VPI’s incorporation truly helped to fill in the gap left as some of the founding members moved on to new endeavors. The hard work and dedication of these members helped shape the organization into what it is today. Being an organization comprised entirely of volunteers, most of the members are in school, have jobs, or both. It takes an extra something to be able to help run a nonprofit organization in addition to a multitude of other responsibilities, but these passionate members stuck around through our ups and downs, squeezing in meetings between classes, on the way to lunch, and late into the night. They used personal vacation time and funds to travel on behalf of VPI. We bounced ideas around on how we could improve, constantly sought feedback from experienced advisors, and worked to continuously improve our operational and project development models.

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By the time that VPI officially received its 501(c)(3) status in February 2011, we had completed our first project and had a membership of 20 individuals. Over the last several years, our portfolio has blossomed into three projects and our membership has doubled, with our scope expanded to three countries outside of the U.S. and our volunteers based in seven cities worldwide. We’ve hosted countless events and increased our online presence significantly. Throughout all this, there have been four integral members who have been with us since the beginning: Shivangi Khargonekar, Patrick Kwiatkowski, Chandni Shah, and Jason Vou.

On behalf of VPI’s three active founding members, Phillip Dixon, Marianna Oykhman, and myself, I would like to thank Shivangi, Patrick, Chandni, and Jason for their hard work by deeming them honorary founding members of VPI. Their selfless dedication and drive toward developing a better world has helped to lay the foundation for our organization, and I’m proud to work alongside them. It’s because of the commitment of these individuals, as well as all of our members, partners, and donors, that we have been able to evolve into a growing nonprofit with the potential to make a real change in the communities we work with.

This blog post was written by Merry Walker, Executive Director of Vort Port International

VPI BioD Team Brews Up a Fundraising Project

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Madagascar is well-known as home to an abundant variety of plant and animal species seen nowhere else in the world, as well as its high quality exports of vanilla, chocolate, and rice. What you may not know is Madagascar is also home to some seriously good coffee. This fact was discovered during Vort Port International’s most recent trip to the country earlier this year when team members tried some of the coffee during their travels. After tasting the quality of the coffee, the team thought there had to be a way to incorporate this wonderful product into our overall BioD strategy.

With this in mind, the BioD team and its local partners the Peace Corps and Rotaract Club AVANA began exploring the possibility of using the coffee as a fundraising tool for the BioD project. The goal would be to transport the coffee back to United States, where it would be roasted and sold in and around the Washington, D.C., area. The proceeds from the coffee would go toward operating costs for the BioD project as well helping defray the substantial initial investment required by the Malagasy when purchasing a biodigester.

Although the fundraising initiative is still early in its development, significant progress has been made. Thanks to our Peace Corps and Rotaract AVANA partners in Madagascar (and some of their family coming back to the U.S.!) we were able to send around five pounds of raw coffee to Washington, D.C. Once the coffee arrived, we teamed up with a locally owned roaster to roast the coffee for us and provide feedback on the quality. In addition, we took the roasted coffee to several local D.C. coffee shops for feedback and to gauge interest level.

The feedback from the roaster and the coffee shops was overwhelmingly positive! The quality of the coffee, along with rareness of being able to offer a coffee from Madagascar, led to a lot of interest from the roaster and coffee shops. Due to the high interest from our first batch of Malagasy coffee, we are already looking to bring back a second batch of raw coffee to test with additional roasters and gain some more feedback.

While there is still much work to be done, the BioD team is excited about the prospects the coffee fundraising brings. In addition to providing a source of fundraising for the BioD project, the project will aid Malagasy farmers in finding a steady buyer for their coffee and increase awareness of Madagascar as a legitimate coffee exporter. The BioD team is confident that conscious coffee consumers will be excited to try the Malagasy coffee, as well as learn about the biodigester program it helps support. Hopefully within the next year you will be seeing Malagasy coffee at your favorite coffee shop and will be able to try it for yourself!

This blog post was written by Mike Waldsmith, Business Lead – BioD Project with Vort Port International.

Redefining the 6 p.m. Hour



Around 6 p.m., the sun begins to set and darkness blankets the nation’s capital. The streetlights flicker on, illuminating the walk home for the city’s commuters. As darkness falls, a surge of electricity powers the light bulbs in homes and apartments in and around the Beltway.

But on the other side of the world, in many low-income communities in India, 6 p.m. marks the beginning of the scent of gas. It marks the release of fumes that are inhaled by the men and women working on fishing boats, the children studying for school and the parents cooking dinner. Nighttime marks an increase in the release of pollutants and risk of a fire. It marks another payment for fuel that a resident must make just to conduct a basic evening routine that so many of us take for granted.

The darkness marks another night that a low-income community’s need for kerosene stands as a barrier to achieving independence from this dangerous, hazardous and expensive energy source.

But night doesn’t need to keep communities chained to kerosene. Vort Port International (VPI), a DC-based international development nonprofit, incubates social enterprises to lead the way for low-income communities to participate in the energy revolution. At VPI, the Solaii project (previously known as India Solar Lamps or ISL) has been developing a solar-powered lamp that will not only light the night, but also empower these communities to work towards a brighter future

What separates VPI from the typical firm in the international development field is that it is 100% volunteer driven, with a mission that is directed by a passion to continuously develop sustainable tech-based solutions for communities in need. VPI isn’t a group of idealistic, starry-eyed entrepreneurs, but a team of experts working together towards tangible results. In 2011, VPI installed a solar-powered computer lab in the heart of southern rural India. During the day, more than 1,500 students and teachers are able to use the lab while at night, the lab turns into an Internet café, maximizing the potential of the technology.

Solaii is working to scale its successes and build on its experience with solar energy by creating a multi-use solar lamp. More than two billion people lack access to adequate electricity in the developing world, and building the infrastructure to improve these conditions is difficult for many reasons, including resource constraints, political obstacles and corruption. Currently in India, 840 million people live in villages, and kerosene is the main source of fuel for 60% of rural communities. Unfortunately, kerosene is also a non-renewable source of energy that is increasingly expensive and harmful. Chronic exposure to kerosene fumes can lead to lung cancer*, skin conditions and accidental poisoning among children. (*The World Bank cites that 67% of adult female lung-cancer victims in developing nations are non-smokers.) In addition, because it is highly flammable, kerosene is inherently a fire hazard for communities that utilize these lamps indoors without proper ventilation.

VPI’s Solaii team believes that micro-solutions can begin to alleviate this desperate situation, and our goal is to create a solar lamp to replace the dangers of kerosene lighting. Our second prototype is near completion and elevates current market standards. We have worked to incorporate the voices of local communities by designing through an iterative ask-build-test-deliver model. The final product will be multi-functional, durable, waterproof and affordable, and the project will include an education component to ensure lasting benefits and increase economic activity. We plan to leverage established distribution channels by partnering with on-the-ground trainers from local NGOs in order to teach community members how to use and sell the lamps, eventually enabling them to create their own business.

Solaii will start delivering its solution in India and then expand to rest of the developing world. Based on estimates, the project will become profitable by its second year. Over five years we aim to replace more than 10 million kerosene lamps with solar lamps, and reduce over 76.5 million kilograms of carbon emissions.

Solaii is working to redefine the 6 p.m. hour around the world, one lamp at a time.

This blog post was written by Eric Shu, Educational Analyst for the Solaii Project

Madagascar 2013: BioD Project Site Visit

This May, I traveled to Madagascar for the Vort Port International Biodigester project (BioD). My mission was to meet our on-the-ground partners, visit potential pilot locations, gather information on future manufacturing and supply chain possibilities, and gain feedback from and discuss next steps with our partners. The BioD Project has been going on for over two years now, and the team has been working around the U.S. designing, testing, and improving various components of the biodigester technology. The finished product will provide a more environmentally-sustainable alternative source of cooking fuel to communities who are currently using charcoal and firewood.

The BioD project was inspired by my previous visit to Madagascar in November 2009. During this trip, I saw how charcoal-making and charcoal-use was devastating to the many people who live off of the land. This practice involves cutting down large areas of trees and letting these trees dry before they’re piled together, covered with dirt, and burned down anaerobically to produce charcoal.

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Charcoal is sold and used directly, or combined with firewood, as energy sources for cooking. On average a single family uses one to two large bags full of charcoal per month. Price ranges based on the region where they are purchased, but the one consistent trend is that prices have been steadily increasing over time, as forestland has become less and less available.

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After the trees are deforested, the area undergoes desertification, and the people livng there are forced to push their land line back and walk further each day to gather wood and food.  Charcoal-making and firewood use also decrease the available land for the already endangered unique species in Madagascar. Cooking with firewood and charcoal is not only an environmental threat, but is also detrimental to human health. According to the World Health Organization, two million people die prematurely from illness attributed to poor indoor air pollution and household solid fuel use. This problem is not specific to Madagascar – over three billion people use biomass and coal for cooking. However, Madagascar is unique because of the sheer amount of biodiversity (over 150,000 endemic species), the growing population (3% annually), and the island-nature of the country. Limited options for energy sources, a largely rural population, and high deforestation rate all make Madagascar the perfect place for the BioD project to work.

My Trip
My first stop was the capital city of Antananarivo. Immediately after deplaning, I was greeted by a several eager and energetic members of the Rotaract Club AVANA who picked me up at the airport. I still remember coming out of baggage check and getting swarmed by all these people planting wonderful kisses on each cheek. They then whisked me off to an amazing lunch, and we made plans to meet the entire Rotaract Club AVANA team the next day.

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We woke up early and made our way out to Iavoambony, a village about one hour from the capital. The grandparents of the Rotaract Club AVANA president grew up in this village in a house they built. The village was quaint, with 1,200 residents, and taking only ten minutes to walk from end to end. There I met with some local villagers who kindly showed me into their homes. The first thing I noticed was the fact that pigs were kept in the homes, just a couple feet away from the fire pit/stove where meals were made, and approximately five feet away from their beds. I was told that people keep their pigs in their homes to prevent thieves from stealing the thing that defined most Malagasy’s wealth and social standing. It was logical, but left me worrying for their health. In addition to the pigs’ waste around the floor, the walls were black, coated from the charcoal and wood soot. We then walked down to meet with the village’s chief, where we met and discussed the virtues of the project. He’d been living there in the same house the entire 52 years of his life. Upon learning about the goals of the BioD project, he smiled widely and remarked how he has noticed how much further his family has had to walk to gather wood, and how water patterns have shifted dramatically due to reduced forest density.

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I spent the next several days in Antananarivo visiting various offices in the capital to determine how best to establish a Malagasy branch of our organization, and the legal requirements to starting this project. Everyone I met with was thrilled for this project, and receptive to help it start.

Next, I traveled three hours west to Ampefy, a larger but more remote village of 3,000 people. Ampefy is in the highlands region of Madagascar. The lands are vast and rolling, with rice paddies of varying shapes, old mountains, and blue skies. Malagasy cows, or zebu, created the only traffic jams, children peered shyly at me, and roosters woke me up daily at 3 a.m. Being there made me feel at peace.

I met with Emma, a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Ampefy who is part of the partnership between VPI and Peace Corps, Madagascar. She is working on several economic development projects with a local nonprofit called Prosperer, and took an interest in our initiative.  photo 6Emma had set up a meeting at the town hall  with several intrigued local residents. Here, I presented the project to the town mayor and the townspeople, with Emma as my translator. It was nice to have the presentation turn into more of a discussion, with the townspeople asking meaningful and thoughtful questions. By the end of the meeting, a few of the villagers wanted to be on-ground volunteers and offered to build a demonstration site for people in the area, set up, and run the pilot unit.

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The next day Emma and I traveled to the home of the on-ground volunteers, which is also the potential pilot site, to meet the family that would be operating the biodigester unit. Surprisingly, getting there by local transportation, which consisted of waiting on the side of the road for a bus, was easy and almost enjoyable. We sat under a shade tree sipping on Malagasy coffee (espresso). After an hour or so, we arrived at the family’s house. They had acres of land and rolling hills, zebu, pigs, and roosters roaming their property.

photo 9We met in the kitchen/eating area for the family — a place that could easily hold 20 people. In Madagascar, people live with their extended family and eating together is a way of social bonding (something I can definitely get behind!) After explaining the project and fielding their questions, they were so eager to start the project that they almost ran off to buy the components and start building. I had to contain them a bit, explaining that, unless properly built and checked, the nature of gas can be dangerous. The excitement and hospitality they showed me blew me away.

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Leaving the beautiful and peaceful Ampefy was difficult, but I was eager to meet the University of Antananarivo students that the BioD Project team is working with three graduate students have built and tested the biodigester design in-country, providing important feedback and data for the US-based team to make design improvements and changes. Working with them has been a pleasure, and my visit there was nothing short of motivating. The students showed me their unit, how they loaded it, and tested the flame to demonstrate how it worked. I literally felt the effectiveness when I accidentally got too close to the flame, and felt the intensity of the heat billowing out of the biodigester. After the site visit, we explored the city, dropping into various stores to determine where best to source parts for future biodigester units. As expected, the main portion of the biodigester was extremely expensive, and its quality was unreliable due to spotty supply chain. To deal with this problem, the team and I are working on establishing contacts to be able to provide a direct supply to Madagascar for this project as it continues to scale.

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The day after seeing the biodigester in action, I went with the University students and their professor to investigate other potential pilot locations. The first location we stopped at was Manjakandriana, a 3.5 hour drive from Antananarivo toward the forest-dense east coast. There we met with the mayor of the region. During the interview, she provided survey responses for basic questions such as population, but also described the region’s environmental history. Manjakandriana was previously home to several endemic species of lemurs that lived in the area’s forests. Because these lemurs could only survive on a diet consisting of the endemic plants, they followed the endemic forest as the line retreated, which was due to people replacing the natural forest with eucalyptus trees. The eucalyptus trees grow large enough for charcoal production in 2-3 years, much faster than the growth rate of endemic trees. Because of the high reliance on charcoal around Madagascar, the endemic forest has been reduced to the small, protected forests, while eucalyptus spans all non-agricultural fields as far as the eyes can see. It’s both beautiful and frightening the sheer quantity of forest that has been converted to this imported and invasive plant species. The mayor of Manjakandriana stated that she has noticed how the water levels have been decreasing, and soil quality has been severely depleted because of this. The eucalyptus doesn’t retain the soil quality as well as the endemic plants, and soil erosion is prevalent in these regions. Even though these problems are occurring, few efforts are being made to diversify the plant make-up, or reduce deforestation rates.

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I later had an opportunity to visit Andasibe-Mantadia National Forest, a dense but small protected forest. Over 85 endemic plant species and 11 lemur species exist in this 155 km2 area. Being there was bittersweet, as I saw how the land was and could be, but I knew few options existed to restore the land to anything even close to what it was just a couple decades ago. A couple of close encounters with lemurs crossing our path put us face-to-face with a type of animal that’s being squeezed out without anywhere to go. Biodiversity in Madagascar doesn’t just mean protecting our furry friends. In the late 1950’s, scientists discovered the Madagascar Periwinkle, a plant endemic to Madagascar. The leaves of this plant produce an anti-cancer agent, and increased the survival rate of childhood leukemia from 20% to above 90%. And this is just one plant out of thousands. Scientists have yet to discover or even identify many of the endemic plant species; it’s sad to think how many possible cures exist in those lands, and will be lost forever to human practices.

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These are the potential human impacts that preserving biodiversity has, and one thing our team is working to achieve. We are also dedicated towards creating a direct and immediate impact of using biodigesters as an alternative for cooking, reducing the time spent collecting firewood and charcoal and ultimately providing a healthier living environment. I’m proud to be working on such an effort with a devoted team, and am excited to see the impact the project has as it continues through to implementation.

This blog post was written by Merry Walker, Executive Director of Vort Port International

VPI Member Spotlight: Matt Ford

ImageMatthew Ford is a design engineer with Vort Port International’s Solaii (formerly India Solar Lamps) project. A native of South Carolina, he earned both his Bachelor and Master of Science in Engineering degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. During his senior year of college Ford took an industrial design course, and it was a project that involved designing for the dollar-a-day customer that sparked his interest in sustainable technology — something that until this point he had not given much thought to.

“I quickly learned why people call it ‘essential design’,” Ford said. “Designing for essential needs is the most basic, but at the same time complex, design problem. It shares all of the processes behind creating the things that make our lives convenient, such as securing investment capital, user research, manufacturing, marketing, etc., but the stakes are so much higher. The possibility to make real and lasting positive changes to peoples’ lives, coupled with the magnitude of the scalability, is both fascinating and inspiring.”

Before joining VPI in August 2012, Ford did pro-bono design work for a project serving farmers in Tanzania. In an effort to ease the burden of head-carrying water, the team built, shipped, and sold 1,000 pushcarts. This provided Ford his first experience working with overseas manufacturers and iterating through a design process with multiple pilot tests.

“Hearing the stories of our customers was inspiring, and it was a great start to reading up on international development. Everyone has an opinion about how to alleviate poverty, so it was helpful to get a sense for various attempts and outcomes.”

As with any successful endeavor, being able to think outside the box is crucial to the product design process — a point that was driven home for Ford while working in Tanzania. The pushcart team knew that the cart would be useless with a flat tire or a wheel that fell apart, and since the wheel was the most expensive component, they brainstormed to come up with an easy replacement scheme.

“Early in the project we were considering and testing all sorts of crazy ideas,” Ford explains.  “At one point it occurred to us that there were tons of old two-liter soda bottles in the urban areas, so we thought we could pressurize these and bind them to use as wheel hubs, since a pressurized bottle is nearly rock hard. We ran all the calculations to see what the strains and stresses on the bottle would be at various pressures and calculated how much dry ice we’d need to pressurize them. We then ran a series of load tests on the system, which consisted of repeatedly throwing 40-pound water jugs on dry-ice pressurized wheel hubs. Not exactly how I had imagined using my engineering degree!”

The team soon realized that dry ice was far too expensive, and that pressurizing bottles was dangerous. But they did find another solution — using recycled bike tires lashed to a steel spoke frame — which was both economical and safe.

Experiences such as this help Ford in his current role with VPI’s Solaii project, where he does mechanical and industrial design. His main task is to establish design requirements (based on prior design/field research) and translate those to a mechanical design that satisfies the specifications. He works with manufacturing and electrical engineers on the team to ensure all the pieces fit together and to help move the project into production. Currently he is making revisions to the design and preparing to build another functional prototype for testing, which will hopefully take place this fall. He also hopes to visit the sites in India once the team has completed its first production run.

Ford is looking forward to creating a product that will make positive and lasting changes to the quality of life in the communities Solaii serves. “I really enjoy meeting people who share my interests and learning from their experiences in development, but  overall I want to work on projects that make life better for people today, as well as those who will follow tomorrow.”

By day Ford works as a biomechanical engineer focusing on advanced materials research, specifically trying to understand injury mechanisms using physical and computational models, and apply those insights to develop better protective equipment. He has also designed sustainable housewares using the Kickstarter platform, and is currently experimenting with how to use graphic design and visual communication to make the chaotic news cycle more approachable (visit for more information.) He is also the unofficial social secretary for VPI, organizing a monthly happy hour which gives the DC-based volunteers a chance to interact face-to-face.

Whether sketching out designs, collaborating with the Solaii team on conference calls, or bringing his fellow volunteers together at happy hour, VPI would like to thank Matt Ford for his many contributions to the team.

Vort Port International’s (VPI) Solaii project works to help the rural communities of India climb back on the economic ladder through effective solar lamp technology and smart business models, while reducing the environmental and human health hazards of kerosene lighting. For more information or to find out how you can contribute to this project please visit

This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.

Bandha Bikes Site Visit – Uganda

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Two weeks in Uganda was a short amount of time to try to accomplish so much. Time takes on a different shape there, moving with the flow of the natural day. Even though the days flew by, the overall pace of life was slower. Everything is on African time – about two hours late on average – and people operate in a more relaxed manner. They speak gently and thoughtfully, unless they’re arguing, in which case all bets are off. They saunter rather than speed-walk, and take the time to formally greet one other before jumping into business. It’s a lifestyle that inherently counters my typical behavior, and has taught me patience and the art of enjoying life in the present.

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I was in Uganda representing Vort Port International’s (VPI) Bandha (bamboo in Lugandan) Bicycle Project, which works to train local villagers how to build, maintain, and sell the bamboo bicycles to people in and around Uganda. The team’s project director, Song Nguyen, had performed the first site visit last June, and I was there performing a follow up visit to solidify pilot locations, answer questions for the project, and continue to gain feedback. Bamboo is an abundant, locally-grown, and strong resource that can replace traditional steel bicycle frames. Most of these steel bicycles are secondhand from China or Japan, and are sold at relatively high costs compared to the average Ugandan income. Because of this, the local economy for these bicycles has limited room for growth, and many people, especially the vulnerable and needy, don’t have access to a much-needed form of transportation (for the majority of Ugandans, walking is their sole means of transportation.)  Because of the lower material costs associated with frame construction, bamboo bicycles will sell for less than that of steel bikes.  This will increase access to the product and, enables children to get to school , families to fetch water more conveniently, and increases commerce to increase by using the bicycles to transport goods, thereby empowering communities to succeed. Additionally, training and hiring Ugandans to build, sell, and grow the project will stimulate the local economy and promote Ugandan-made goods that can be sold and even exported, rather than relying on the costly and unreliable second-hand import market. Being able to talk to villagers, women, and students around Uganda about this project has been exciting and further strengthened my enthusiasm  for Bandha Bicycles’ vision.
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My first stop  in Uganda was the village of Lukaya in the Kalungu District, half way between the capital, Kampala, and the western border of Uganda. There, I met with George, the director of Tree of Life Ministries,  and several headmasters of Mustard Seed Academy, an incredible boarding school founded by Elaine and Joe Griswold, two amazing people who VPI is fortunate to be partnering with. This school offers not only education, but also housing to orphans and other students in need. I visited the students and the community, as well as local sites for bamboo sources, and discussed the project with local leaders. Sean, a volunteer contractor for the school, was extremely helpful and hospitable, and shared some of the challenges and rewards of working in this community with me.

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Visiting the Mustard School was an amazing experience. I was greeted by the students announcing “you are most welcome,” in unison when I walked into each classroom. They then showed me some of their notes, all written in great detail — because of the lack of textbook availability for the students, their notes essentially were their textbooks. There was a wide age range of students–from 13 year olds learning advanced geometry and trigonometry all the way to three year olds writing short sentences. It was hard to believe that until the school was founded a few years ago, many of these kids were living on the street. They were bright and curious, and their spirits matched their intellect.

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I even had the opportunity to teach a mini-course to the secondary (high school) students who will eventually be trained through their vocational and service learning course on how to build the bamboo bicycles. When I asked them if they believed that bamboo could be used as a bicycle frame, they all replied (again in unison), “Yes, Ms. Walker”. One of the main challenges that the team has faced is convincing Ugandans that bamboo can, in fact, be a suitable substitute for steel or other bicycle frame materials. To have the students all agree that they do believe that bamboo could be used  was music to my ears. They all seemed eager to learn new skills — in response to the question of who would like to eventually be a bike builder, every single child raised their hand in the room. Perhaps it was just the overall excitement of the day, or the presence of a foreigner, but I genuinely felt that the students wanted to participate. Overall, I was beyond impressed by the caliber of students studying here, as well as the quality of their work.

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After leaving Lukaya, I then made my way to Jinja, a beautiful, quaint, and bustling town where I was based for the remainder of the trip. There, I first met with Sharon, the director of VPI’s partner organization Arise and Shine Uganda, to go over the questions I reviewed with all of the Ugandan partner organizations. We then took a day-long journey toward Kibuye, the village where she is from and now works, to discuss the project. We stopped at a bamboo farm and a couple village centers along the way to speak with local communities about the progress of the project, gain feedback, answer questions, and discuss next steps. People had insightful questions and concerns.
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Will the bicycles be able to handle the conditions in Uganda? How can I be assured that you’re going to come back? When will you be back? These communities have worked with previous development organizations that came in to do some work, or make false promises, and then deserted them. While people were excited, they seemed skeptical of development in general.  Still, I sensed  that they trusted us more than  other organizations,  because when we said that we’d come back, we kept our word.

The following day, I went to meet with Kats and the members of Nansana Children’s Center (NCC) in Kampala, another partner

photo 9organization. NCC works with youth and single mothers in Kampala linking single mothers with educational resources and materials for thier children and linking families with other community resources so they can thrive, regardless of income. They currently have a small primary school program at their facility and are looking to eventually build a larger school, as well as other buildings to support their work.    After introducing the Bandha Bikes program to Kats and the other board members, I spoke with the single mothers that are part of the NCC program. They were very keen to know what it would take to be part of the Bandha Bikes project.
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We also ran through sample lesson plans on resource mobilization and gender equality which would be offered to participants of the program along with the technical bicycle workshops. The lesson plans were well received, but their perception of gender equality startled me because of the stark cultural differences.  However, after running through a high-level version of the lesson plan, the group responded very positively to the  class, saying that it was applicable and opened their eyes. I have the Bandha Bikes team to thank for their thoughtfulness in developing the lesson. Although I was uncomfortable in the situation, the lesson gave useful statistics and posed intriguing questions that challenged traditional thinking. Overall, the project aims to not only provide bicycles, but help educate on some of the underlying social issues and provide some context to address these issues so that the bicycles can  help empower women and girls in the community.

The next day, I met with three wonderful individuals – Amos, Moses, and Brian – all of whom have been doing social work  with the local community and teaching villagers how to make jewelry out of bamboo. They showed me how their work  is already making a difference in the villagers’ lives, and that the community members they work with highly respect them. I arrived by boda boda (riding on the back of a motorcycle) to Lwanda, and was happily received by a large group of women yipping and yelping sounds of joy. I was told that these sounds reflect their excitement and joy for the project’s presence.  We talked for a bit, and then set off to round up more people for a larger meeting at the center meeting place dubbed “the Office.” Approximately 40 villagers, primarily women, attended,

photo 11and they were attentive and asked great questions that reflected more of their concerns about development and whether there was assurance that we’d be back. Again, I could not promise anything but explained that the team was there a year ago and promised to return, and we had. After this, they seemed to open up more and responded with more yips of joy. I couldn’t help but smile when looking into their eyes — the happiness of hope lit up their faces. They got a kick out of watching the Bandha Bikes video that the media team assembled, and couldn’t wait for the bike to be in their communities.

 The main thing that resonated between all of the communities that I visited was the overwhelming answer to the simple series of questions I posed to each one:

1) Do you have a bicycle?  For the majority the answer was no, and if yes, it was typically used by the lead male of the family.  photo 12

2) If not, why? “They are too expensive.”

3) How would that help your lives? “They would provide increased access to health care, water, school, and the ability to perform jobs that would improve our livelihoods.”

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With this overwhelming agreement about the potential and demand for bamboo bicycles,  it is now our turn to do our best to meet this demand, and work with our amazing partners in Uganda to provide this simple, but life-changing technology.

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For more information on the Banda Bikes project click here.

Written by Merry Walker, Co-founder and Executive Director of Vort Port International

VPI Makes it to Final Four in Brackets for Good


Vort Port International recently participated in the annual Brackets For Good fundraising competition. Hoping to take the enthusiasm of March Madness and bring it to non-profit fundraising, in 2011 the Indiana-based organization Brackets for Good developed a way to match up non-profits using a bracket system in a single elimination tournament to score points: $1 raised = 1 point. The organization or team with the most points at the end of a week wins and advances to the next round. There are three total rounds, with two finalists competing in the final round for $5,000 in prize money. The participating non-profits also get to keep the money they have already raised.

This year was the first to include non-profits in the D.C. area, and VPI competed with almost 50 organizations to secure a spot in the Sweet Sixteen. VPI put up a good fight, making it to the Final Four before being eliminated, but not before having raised over $600 that will go toward VPI programs.

Of course you don’t need a basketball-themed contest to make a donation to VPI — those are welcome any time!

This blog post was written by Lisa Wu, Social Media Specialist for Vort Port International.

Vort Port International’s BioD Project Partners with DC’s Wangari Gardens

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A community garden in the Park View neighborhood of Washington, DC, may seem worlds away from the African island nation of Madagascar, but this spring, Wangari Gardens (WG) will play an important role in developing technology that will be used nearly 9,000 miles away.

Since 2010, Vort Port International’s (VPI) Biodigester (BioD) team of creative designers and engineers has been developing a low-cost anaerobic biodigester to generate clean and renewable energy in order to provide an alternative for cooking fuel in biodiversity-threatened, at-need regions of the world.

Part of the development process includes testing, so when VPI Executive Director Merry Walker heard about Friends of Wangari Gardens, a non-profit with a mission of converting DC vacant green spaces into sustainable parks and gardens, governed by and for the non-profit benefit of the community, she knew they would be a perfect fit as a VPI community partner.

“While the BioD will provide sustainable energy in underserved communities around the world, our partnership with Wangari Gardens will promote awareness in our local community of the most pressing global issues such as deforestation, air pollution and lack of access to clean energy,” explains BioD Project Director Rahul Mitra.

Through this partnership, VPI will test the BioD at the Wangari Gardens site using manure from a local horse stable and plant waste matter from the garden as inputs. The by-products of the BioD are a nutrient-rich sludge that Wangari Gardens’ growers will be able to use as fertilizer, as well as methane gas.

“Wangari Gardens is ecstatic to partner with VPI on their BioD Project for several reasons,” says Josh Singer, Executive Director of Friends of Wangari Gardens. “First, we hope to use the methane gas by-product to create an outdoor cooking class someday. We also plan to educate our community about the science, benefits and sustainability of biodigesters.  And finally, Wangari Gardens is named in honor of one of the greatest tree advocates in the world, Professor Wangari Maathai. If this BioD model could save forests around the world, we are thrilled to help.”

On March 17, 2013, the BioD team officially moved the prototype to Wangari Gardens where members of the community got a chance to see the BioD in action. Using a mixture of horse manure and water, the team began the seeding process, which will develop an anaerobic bacterial colony in the BioD prototype required to generate methane gas. Members of the BioD team were on hand to provide information on biodigester technology, as well as the global energy issues that VPI hopes to address. Pictures from this event can be seen on the VPI Facebook page.

VPI’s BioD team will be participating in open houses at Wangari Gardens over the next few months. Check WG’s Facebook page for schedule updates.

In other BioD news, students at the Institut pour la Maîtrise de l’Energie in Madagascar have started testing their prototype as well. Results from the concurrent testing of the two prototypes will be used to make design modifications and performance enhancements. Merry Walker will be traveling to Madagascar in May, at which time she and the students will visit partner communities. She will also visit the Malagasy BioD prototype, and identify the pilot sites and on-the-ground leaders.

For more information on the BioD project or to make a donation visit

This blog post was written by Susan Patterson, Marketing and Branding Specialist for Vort Port International.

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