Tag Archive | progress

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 www.theshapeofnews.com 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 http://www.vortport.com/our-projects/solar-lamps/.

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

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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/.

Earth Day – The Big Picture

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In May of 1969, pilots Eugene Cernan, John Young and Commander Thomas P. Stafford set flight in the 4th American manned flight into space.  Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the moon landing to come, a test of low approach orbit to calibrate the descent guidance system to within 1-nautical-mile needed for a landing.  The ascent module, the vessel two astronauts lifted off in after visiting the lunar surface, was short-fueled on purpose for this particular mission.

“A lot of people thought about the kind of men we were” pilot Cernan said.   “ ‘Don’t give those guys an opportunity to land, because they might!'”

The crew maintained their mission and flew several successful test orbits around the moon.  The mission insignia was that of a large, three-dimensional Roman numeral X sitting on the moon’s surface, in Stafford’s words, “to show that we had left our mark.”  The mark they made, however, was more profoundly felt on their home planet Earth.  Apollo 10 carried with it the first colored television camera into space.  Some of the images displayed the whole of the Earth, all of its round glory in the blackness of space.  The pictures brought back from this inspired period of explorers sparked a broad public fascination with the bigger picture of things.  The long and timeless dialogue about human life grew broader and more vexing in 1969, spurring incomprehensible thoughts and dreams about the grand uniqueness of Earth in its vast loneliness of space.  For John McConnell, the pictures encapsulated a vision of one singular home that every human being must share.  After seeing the images in print that year, McConnell suddenly had a visual brand that represented every social and environmental cause he ever pursued.

John McCollen was born in 1915 in Davis City, Iowa, but didn’t remain there long.  His evangelical parents traveled about, their family living out of a modified van.  Despite the lack of structured education, the vagrant boy showed early promise and visited libraries regularly across the country, from the Southwest desert to the snowy Great Lakes region.  Early in his adult life, McCollen served as business manager of the Nobell Research Foundation in Los Angeles.  The laboratory responsible for developing thermosetting plastics hardly seems like the humble beginnings of Earth’s most prolific advocate.  Still, his interest in religion, science, and peace propelled him to seek solutions as his concern for ecology grew.  Even during his time at the Foundation, after greatly considering their impact on nature, the team successfully developed plastics made from walnut shells.

John McCollen made a Roman numeral X of his own on October 31, 1957, just a few weeks after Earth witnessed its first artificial satellite, Sputnik.  McCollen wrote an editorial for the Toe Valley View entitled, “Make Our Satellite a Symbol of Hope”.  The article called for peaceful cooperation in the exploration of space in the wake of domestic violence and international tension.  The small-town editorial from North Carolina was reprinted in hundreds of newspapers across the country and led to the founding of the Star of Hope organization.  The foundation aimed to engender international collaboration in space expedition.  After moving their publication to California, McConnell and his editorial partner, Earling Toness, urged the White House to sponsor a joint venture with both American and Soviet astronauts.  President Kennedy supported the idea and, later, President Nixon obtained agreement between the conflicting nations.

McCollen went on to lead a multitude of social causes and ecological movements in the decades to come.  The tall, enthusiastic man directed the efforts of Meals for Millions, feeding thousands of starving Hong Kong refugees.  He worked tirelessly on the Minute for Peace program, a radio broadcast that collected conversations and interviews from some of the world’s brightest and powerful advocates of peace and diplomacy.  As concern grew over the mistreatment of lands and oceans, he conceived the idea of Earth Day.  It was proposed at a UNESCO conference in San Francisco to be held on the vernal equinox, a time when the sun is shared equally between the Southern and Northern hemispheres of the planet.  Not long after, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson began promoting an annual Environmental Teach-In, and proposed it be celebrated around April 20.  McCollen and Senator Nelson vied against one another for control of the event, and confusion over a decided date carried on for over a decade.  Still, the two entities progressed forward to make many contributions to the annual celebration.  McCollen created an Earth Day Flag to represent all peoples, a silk screen of white (clouds) and blue (ocean).  The original flag had no forms or colors to represent land, territory, or borders.  But then, flipping through the pages of Life Magazine in 1969, McCollen saw the profound images taken from space, as though the moon itself aimed a camera at Earth and snapped a mug shot for us all.  A new Earth Day flag was created using the image of Earth as seen from space, and it is still flown today when Earth Day is recognized annually at the U.N.  It is the only acknowledged flag that represents all people of the world.

After taking time to be with his wife, Anna, and their two children, the self-educated man from Iowa (and everywhere else) formed the Earth Society Foundation.  The organization was put in place to promote the Earth Day Flag and, more importantly, the Earth Trustees.  The idea came to McCollen while sitting in a restaurant in Texas, and he immediately transcribed the idea in writing.  Upon a used placemat he decreed:

Let each person choose to be a Trustee of Planet Earth, each in their own way, seeking to think, choose and act in ways that will protect, preserve and increase Earth’s natural bounty, ever seeking fair benefits for all Earth’s people and for its creatures great and small.

– John McConnell, Earth Trustee Challenge, early 1970s

It is likely that John McConnell is not a household name today, nor was his name back then.  Yet, his message is farther-reaching than most, having rallied family and friends, educated thousands of students and fellow citizens, enlightened senators and representatives, allied with U.N. members, and challenged world leaders to do better by their people and environment.  Today, John McConnell is well into his 90s and is still a restless advocate for environmental awareness and care of our planet.  He and his wife, having spent the majority of their marriage in Brooklyn, NY, later moved to Colorado.  Anna insisted that her husband walk a quarter-mile every day.  Most days, McConnell sits at a small desk in a second bedroom they made into a quaint office, working on the computer and telephone 4 to 8 hours a day in order to further his message.  Days before his 90th birthday in 2004, at the start of an interview with his biographer, McCollen prayed.

“Dear Heavenly Father, we pray that, as I reach near the end of my sojourn here, whatever your mission for me is that I might clearly understand how I can make a difference in changing the global state of mind and providing a way to continue the human adventure.”

We all would do well to remember John McCollen, not for an annual day of awareness and appreciation, but for his unending effort to preserve and protect the little dot in the cosmos we all share and call home.  Let Earth Day be not just a passing day of environmental awareness or beautifying the Earth.  McCollen’s concern for the Earth was not just on Earth Day, but every single day.  Let this day act as a reminder of the continual, long-term efforts needed from every global citizen.  Let this day be one to inaugurate new Earth Trustees, become one yourself, and enact individual resolutions to change our daily habits for the betterment of each other and our planet.  It is important that, on this day, everyone take a step back and look at the bigger picture, as John McCollen once did, and carry it forth everyday thereafter.

Patrick Kwiatkowski

Vort Port International, Media Director

Introducing Our New Teammates!

A lot of good news has been happening around the Vort Port International camp lately. And one thing leads to the next. More funding means more projects, and more projects means we need more help! It’s all very exciting. So today I’d like you to help all of us at the VPI family welcome our new teammates. We’re glad to have everyone and we’re lucky to be working with them to help those at the bottom of the pyramid who need it! So welcome…

First up is a few new additions to the Girls Republic team (with more details on that soon) headed up by Thendo. Joining Thendo is

Jaime Duque: has a BA in business, works with cost benefit analysis that deals with health and safety.

Laura Miller Laura Miller: comes to us filling the role of research officer, all types of fact-finding missions for the projects. Currently works together with Thendo, has a background in journalism media studies.

Song Song Nguyen: will be helping with public health initiatives. Studied Public Health at GW, has a background in family and human development.

Next we have two new members to the communications team:

Kevin Chandler: will be helping with corporate sponsorship development (potential sponsors, talk to Kevin! :))studied journalism and communications at UNC and had a masters in political science and climate change.

Lauren Chiarello Lauren Chiarello: will help with grant writing for the communications team. Lauren works as Director of Federal Affairs for the MS Foundation, and has a background in public healh.

And last, but certainly not least, new help on the operations team!

Li Nie Li Nie: our fantastic new accounting intern.

tanisha Tanisha Govil: serving as internal operations associate, she’ll be helping our Internal Director, Shivangi, with recruiting even more people, interviewing them, and more internal affairs. Tanisha brings an impressive background and knowledge in HR.

So there you have it. Feel free to leave a comment of welcome! Feel free to check out each member’s in-depth bios on our Team Page.

Stay tuned for updates on our projects and some exciting news from this past weekend!

From the Field: Raj’s Progress (and Frustrations) in India

This photo is from our completed project at Jnana Bodhini School in Pavagada. Photos from Raj are coming!

Today I’m going to give you a little glimpse behind the scenes of Vort Port International. Here at Vort Port, we’re constantly communicating with each other via text, instant messaging, e-mail, and weekly conference calls. Sometimes we even give each other updates during our day jobs (don’t tell anyone).

While these updates and communications aren’t always regarding the most entertaining of subjects like accounting or IT problems, we do get updates from our man in the field, Raj Vable, every so often. And I’d like to share such an update today!

Raj is currently in India until September 10th, overseeing the construction of one of our solar-powered computer labs and gave us a progress report on Monday:

“I’ll be in india til next friday, the 10th -I’m  headed to the village today.  The [solar] panels are in India (hooray!) and getting cleared at customs (boooo).  that should take a week, but I am very dubious, because everything here related to Gov’t drags on way longer than people say, and way longer than seems necessary.

While in the village, we’re going to decide on the computer replacements options and figure out how to get internet access.  Also, a dude from SELCO (Harish Hande’s company) is supposed to come to the village to check out the school.

Also, I’m reading The Kite Runner.  It’s so good.”

Two days later, Raj sends another update, this time with a slight hiccup in the plans:

“Hi all,

Disappointing news: the solar panels aren’t actually in India.  I just found out that apparently the container that was supposed to hold the solar panels reached Chennai, but the panels weren’t in it – they weren’t loaded from Singapore.  So the panels are in Singapore, Chennai ETA Sept 12th, two days after I leave.  Great.

Monday, I’m going with all the members of the trust to a company to discuss comptuer replacements.  Also, the Trust says it will be very easy to get the school hooked up with internet acesss.  All in all, a good day.”

What does this mean? Well, Raj won’t get to see the computer lab up and running before he leaves next week. Fortunately, he’s already laid the path and put in plenty of work to allow the locals and other people helping with the project to finish things up.

Regardless, Raj is definitely the linchpin in this project, and we’re very proud of the work he’s done! As our Executive Director Merry Walker told him, Raj has “paved the ground and others can walk on it towards a better life!!”

Raj has been taking plenty of photos, so hopefully we’ll get them up on the blog soon.

Fundraiser at Eden Lounge

We just had a fundraiser at Eden (www.edendc.com) this last Friday. It was great to see our friends come and support the India Project get off the ground. The venue was very cool–rooftop area with plenty of lounging space, great music/DJ, a small dance floor, and fun lighting. The bartenders were generous and the bouncer, Andrew, was kind enough to strike a pose with our poster. Generally, the event was a success! We look forward to working with Eden in the future!  Check out pictures on our facebook page.

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