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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

Redefining the 6 p.m. Hour

 

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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.

Background
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

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

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 www.vortport.org/our-projects/biodigesters/.

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

Woman of Uganda: A Banda Bikes Assessment

Even though it was back in June, I still remember the familiar smell of burnt charcoal that filled my lungs as I stepped off plane and reacquainted myself with the beautiful land of Uganda.  It had been over a year, but I was finally back.   After a 27 hour journey, including a 12 hour layover in rainy London, the boldness of the Ugandan landscape was ever more stunning.  The lush leaves of the trees, the vibrant greens of the grass, and the incredible shades of reds and browns that blended into the soil all reminded me why Uganda is called “Africa’s Pearl”.   Upon arriving in Entebbe International Airport, I searched for my name in the sea of hand-written, cardboard signs welcoming the arriving passengers.   Through my blurred delirium of exhaustion, I finally found a sign that read: “We Welcome Song”. Jackson, my driver, greeted me with a smile that seemed all too familiar.  Of course!  Jackson was the same man who drove me from the airport just one year before.   But this time we weren’t strangers, and we happily caught up with our lives as we drove the 2 hour road to Jinja, Uganda.

With only seven days in-country to conduct a feasibility assessment for Vort Port International’s Banda Bikes Project, I made the best of the little things that would have otherwise driven me crazy – the scorching heat, the lack of clean drinking water, and most of all the aggressive mosquitos.   Those trivial things didn’t matter this time.   I was here for Banda Bikes, a Vort Port project which aims to train local Ugandans to build and sell their own bicycles constructed from locally-sourced bamboo.  Through these bicycles the endeavor hopes to provide disadvantaged populations, particularly women, with greater access to food, water, employment, education, healthcare, and ultimately a greater quality of life.   But in a country that continues to face strict gender norms, such that women are frowned upon for riding bicycles in some regions, implementing this project does not come without its fair share of obstacles.   Still, the benefits of providing bicycles to a community are astronomical, including the potential to increase a household income by 35% or more. [i]

Lukaya Village. Tree of Life Ministries school performance.

Throughout the 4 schools, 4 community-based organizations, and 8 village centers visited, every day was a new adventure.   While in Kibuye Village with Sharon Nyanjura, founder and director of Arise and Shine Uganda, community members shared their dreams of one day learning to build their own bicycles through the project.   Over and over again, the voices of villagers were translated to me, “we are here for you, we will be waiting for your return”.   Although words between us were rarely exchanged directly, our long glances to one another shared the same message, webale (thank you, in the local language).   “Thank you for allowing me into your community”, something I would think to myself throughout my entire journey.

With the support of Real Partners Uganda and Trees of Life Ministries in Lukaya, Uganda, I met brilliant students who shared their dreams of being doctors, lawyers, nurses, pilots, and teachers.   Among them was Iesha, who recognized the value of a bicycle.   She shared with me, “a bicycle is important to me because everywhere I can use a bicycle.  If I had a bicycle, I would use it to fetch water.”  Iesha was one of many female students at Trees of Life Ministries who could envision the asset of a bicycle in her life, despite the opposing gender norms of females riding bicycles in the surrounding community.

For decades it has been recognized by USAID and organizations alike, that women are a force that can transform an entire community.  We also recognize that “countries and companies will thrive if women are educated and engaged as fundamental pillars of the economy”. [ii]   Women continue to have incredible influences on their families and communities, both in developing and industrialized countries, yet the gender gap in equality persists around the globe, including Uganda. [iii]   With the hope of addressing gender inequality with the Banda Bikes project, the voices of women throughout the villages became louder than ever.

Song meeting with the women of Lwanda Village.

In Wakiso District with Katongole Issa of Nansana Children’s Center, I met a single-mother, Fausta.   With her husband having passed away years ago, she is now burdened with raising four children on her own.  With Fausta as the sole financial provider for her children, every day is a struggle.   In a small room which served as the living room, bedroom, and dining room for the entire family of five, I sat with Fausta as she shared her many hardships.   When sales at her potato stand are low, she may make as little as $0.42 a day (US currency), which is the entire cost of her journey back home.  On those rough days, Fausta brings no income home to support her family.

Despite my familiarity with living conditions in the developing world no article, textbook, or lecture can ever prepare someone for the pain and emotion evoked in the eyes of one who actually lives it.   It took a good measure of effort not to shed tears for Fausta as she shared her daily struggles with me.   Fausta reminds me of my own mother and the challenges she faced raising me and my two siblings alone.   Still, two words make the difference between Fausta’s story and that of my mother’s – Government Assistance.  For Fausta, and single-mothers like her, government assistance is a rarity in Uganda, almost non-existent.  I asked myself, “who is here to help these women?”  Across the globe the majority of those living on less than $1 a day are women, regardless of hours worked.   The opportunities for women to earn a living consistently fall short of their male counterparts. [iv], [v]

Nevertheless, as Vort Port International’s Banda Bikes Project further develops, we have in mind the amazing women throughout our partnering communities.  The project will continue to recognize the gender gap and aim to create opportunities for women to learn about, be involved, and eventually build their own bicycles just like their male neighbors.   Until our next visit to Uganda, I will remember fondly the children at Trees of Life Ministries who shared with me their aspirations, and the inspiring people in Lukaya who are waiting for our return.  But most of all, I will often think about Fausta and her beautiful children who remain resilient through their daily struggles, happy and hopeful to have learned about Banda Bikes. The Ugandan communities have helped me recognize the incredible opportunity that exists when local people are provided with support to make a difference in their own communities.  It is their motivation, endless hope, and inspiration which continue to drive Banda Bikes and the people of Vort Port International.  Until my next visit – webale.

Nansana Town. Song with Fausta, children, and friends.

This blog post was written by Song Nguyen, a member of Vort Port International and the project director for Banda Bikes.


[i] Sieber, N. Appropriate transport and rural development in Makete district, Tanzania. Journal of Transport Geography, 6(1). 1998.

[ii] Hausmann, R., Tyson, L., Zahidi, S. The global gender gap report 2011: Insight report. World Economic Forum.  Available at:  http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2011.pdf.

[iii] USAID. Gender equality and women’s empowerment. Retrieved from: http://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/gender-equality-and-womens-empowerment.

[iv] Murray, A. F. From Outrage to Courage. Common Courage Press. Monroe, ME; 1998.

[v] United Nations. Gender and Human Development. Human Development Report. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr1995/chapters/.

Think of Their Future!

I recently caught the R train at Prince Street in Soho on a rainy summer afternoon. The subway system and its strange ecosystem of commuters, tourists, homeless, and wildcards is hardly phasing to my wife and I anymore. We moved to Brooklyn three years ago from our humble (and quiet) home state of Michigan, but we have acclimated well to our new environment. On this particular train was a wildcard I’ve grown accustomed to seeing underground. The middle-aged man standing in the center of the car, with his worn jeans, t-shirt and backpack, felt the need to enlighten his fellow passengers. With a voice tinged with disparity, his exhausted red eyes beamed at us strangers, and the man began to stress aloud about controlled media, big business, and corrupt politicians. Then, specifically, he spoke urgently about the practice of fracking and its dangers to our water sources.

“Wake up! Wake up people”, he shouted. He tried to open a dialogue with those around him, to no avail.

With slumped shoulders, he tugged awkwardly at his grey ponytail. “I don’t like to go this route, but I see a few children on this train. If not for yourselves, can you at least think of them? Think of their future!”

* * *

Two weeks prior to this train ride, I came home from a long 12-hour day at the warehouse. My wife, Meggie, has been feeling sick and achy with a long list of symptoms that are foreign to her. We suspected she might be pregnant. My mind was a blur at work all day, constantly shifting from work to her and the impending pregnancy test we were going to take that evening. When I finally walked through the door after 9pm that evening, Meggie jumped up from the couch. Her only greeting was a sheepish smile. I knew, immediately, that she had already taken the test.

“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” I asked. Her face went red and I knew it was true. “Holy shit.”

My daily thought process hasn’t been the same ever since. We are currently 8 weeks into the pregnancy, we have seen the heart beat, and we notice every baby and toddler in passing through the course of every day. As a father-to-be I am very excited and, strangely, very confident. Being entirely new to the world of parenting, we are devouring one baby book after another. We are pouring through online forums and even interviewing midwives. Overall, I am feeling very good about being a father.

* * *

That is, until I think of that man on the R train. Think of their future! The line struck me unexpectedly. He held up a handful of pamphlets for anyone interested in what he was talking about. My hand, almost involuntarily, shot up in the air. Grateful that anyone was listening, he rushed over and handed me the literature. However, I didn’t get off that easy. Suddenly his best friend, he began to embark on a one-sided conversation with me about the practice of fracking (already know it) and the petitions I should sign (signed them all). The train came to my stop, so I quickly thanked the man and dodged around him for the closing door.

Think of their future! The line continues to nag at me. In fact, it may be my greatest fear in raising children of my own. What kind of a world am I raising them in? I sometimes view the world as a place with an overwhelming vastness of problems (hence my participation in Vort Port International). But with as many problems as I recognize in the world, what problems will my children inherit? That is what scares me. At times, these broad questions seem utterly and hopelessly beyond my control (and as a soon-to-be parent, I don’t like it).

​Thinking of their future, my role and work within Vort Port International has taken on new meaning. My reasons for nonprofit participation have new context. It is my hope that this nagging fear will evolve into unmovable purpose in Vort Port International and my role as a global citizen seeking sustainability for all.

written by
Patrick Kwiatkowski, VPI Media Director

Update from the Solar Powered Computer Lab in India Project

Raj Vable just sent us this email from India. We are very excited for him!

“On Thursday, we had the inauguration of the new computer lab – attached are a couple of the pictures from the event.On behalf of all 1050 students + teachers + everyone, and particularly, me, thank you.

The project is close to completion – the solar panels are installed, the computer lab is up and running, and the back-up batteries are purchased. We have one remaining hurdle: right now, the batteries and computers are still running on the grid, so we need to raise money for the power system to connect the solar panels to the batteries/computer lab. Slowly but surely, right?

It feels good to make steps towards a brighter world.”

And here are some photos:

Happy First Birthday Vort Port International!

Last year, on July 29, 2010, six individuals got together and signed the incorporation of Vort Port International.  Now, the organization has over 25 members, numerous advisors, and people working on four projects from around the world!

Here are some words from members within the organization about what they’ve learned, and what they look forward to this coming year….

Lessons Learned…

“Ideas paired with passionate people can change the world.” ~Merry Walker, Executive Director, C0-Founder, 1 year

“I have learned how to work with many different types of people, which becomes easier when we all have a common vision we are working toward. I have learned how to face challenges on a daily basis while keeping this vision in mind so that I can help VPI overcome these obstacles and meet our end project goals.  Most of all, I have learned from my team members that diligence and patience come a long way.” ~ Shivangi Khargonekar, Internal Director, 1 year

“Just because we’re young, it doesn’t mean that we can’t take on the challenges. You don’t need years of experience to identify the struggles that plague billions of people on a daily basis. Our generation is where the hope lies. We have to keep marching on!” ~ Pahini Pandya, Public Affairs Director, 7 months

“VPI has increased my awareness of global issues and the applicable solutions that can be implemented to create a stronger living community across the world. The organization has educated me in the complex business and technological fields surrounding social and economic development.” ~Jordan Muratsuchi, Biodigester Technical Team, 3 months

“I am continuously learning at Vort Port International.  From learning what it takes to start a company off the ground to discovering new channels of social entrepreneurship and reaching out to the BOP.  Vort Port International allows your creativity to expand, I worked on considering new business models and had a chance to engage with extremely passionate and intelligent people. I gained and put into practice knowledge about energy, environment, international development, and entrepreneurship.” ~ Chandni Shah, Business Director, 11 months

“VPI has some great people in it that are very motivated and intelligent.  However, their efforts have to be managed correctly or they will be wasted.  In order to manage successfully there are a lot of things that have to be done some of which include: understanding what resources individuals have and what they are good at/know, staying in constant communication, providing positive input and rewards, working as a team, welcoming open discussions, keeping a positive work environment… ” ~Phillip Dixon, Biodigester Technical Director, Co-Founder, 1 year

What Excites You about VPI…

“The creativity of the members in the organization which are reflected in the uniqueness of our existing and developing projects are what excite me the most. Moreover, the passion for creating a more sustainable and healthy international community has been maintained by the VPI team since the founding of the organization, and has established a strong connection between the team members, and to the mission and vision of VPI. This common energy and focus exhibited by the team has allowed me to see a truly bright future for the organization, and most importantly, for the people and communities we are seeking to impact in a positive way.” ~Shivangi

“What excites me the most about VPI is the enthusiasm that the entire team has towards working together and striving to help strangers, across the world, that are in need.” ~Jordan

“The people and the energy they bring is just contagious. There is no other way to describe it.” ~Pahini

“Every single person in the organization is in it, because they are truly passionate about the cause and believe in the organization.  It’s exciting to work with so many enthusiastic, young, intelligent, and team-oriented individuals.  ” ~Chandni

Looking Forward…

“Learning to walk!  I am really looking forward to the implementation of some of our ideas and projects.  VPI is finally getting off the ground, and I know this year will be a step in the right direction.” ~Chandni

“I look forward to the organization getting team members on the ground at our project sites later this year to kick off many of our currently developing project ideas, and seeing our goals come to fruition.” ~Shivangi

“Getting our projects piloted and off the ground!” ~Merry

“I am eagerly looking forward to advances in the technologies that VPI is developing and the implementation of such systems.” ~Jordan

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