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MIE Undergrads Make Semifinals of Social Venture Challenge

Industrial engineering major Christopher Greene and mechanical engineering major Moijue Kaikai earned a trip to St. Louis in April by qualifying as semifinalists in the Social Venture Challenge, a competition sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative, founded by former President Bill Clinton “to create and implement innovative solutions to the world's most pressing challenges.” At the St. Louis competition, Greene and Kaikai answered questions from judges and presented a poster, which was based on their ambitious proposal to install photovoltaic solar panels at a school in Cape Verde, while also cultivating collaborative efforts between that school and local schools in Western Massachusetts. 

“We want these local school kids to actually take part in fundraising and collaborations with these students in Cape Verde so they can see how their own participation can help improve the global issue of climate change on a small scale,” explained Greene.

The two students hope their pilot Cape Verde Venture will provide the blueprint for a replicable, scalable strategy to effectively mitigate future global warming, while still expanding access to energy resources.

To that end, the Cape Verde Venture is also being championed by the World Energy Project (WEP), founded by four students at the University of Nebraska, which is coordinating efforts with Greene and Kaikai. The WEP works to connect students all across the world by directly engaging them in the design and implementation of sustainable energy systems.

Although the Cape Verde Venture didn’t make the finals of the Solar Venture Challenge, the competition gave a large boost to the project’s future prospects. “Hopefully, a small project like we’re planning will be a little stepping stone to bigger things,” said Kaikai, who was also the president of the UMass Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). “Who knows where it might go?”

Kaikai is no novice to social organizing of this kind. Last year he took over a dying NSBE chapter at UMass Amherst, quickly boosting the membership from two to 35. Among the many events he initiated was a fundraiser for Keep a Child Alive, a foundation that provides AIDS care, treatment, support, and food for children and families affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa and India.

The goals of Greene and Kaikai are ambitious. The problem they seek to address is a twofold question on a global scale. The first issue is how to lessen further global warming while still expanding access to reliable energy sources. The other issue is the relative lack of awareness, responsibility, and capability that exists among students when it comes to thinking about solving the energy and climate crises.

“In this particular case, we will address the lack of electricity availability at a Cape Verdean school in an environmentally responsible manner,” as the proposal for the Cape Verde Venture explained. “It has become clear that the developing communities cannot power their growth in the same way as today’s major industrialized countries have done without exerting enormous strain on the planet. Yet having access to electricity is essential for educational development in the 21st century.”

For example, as the proposal noted, Internet availability can provide access to unlimited educational material, distance-learning services, and further education for teachers. No electricity means no Internet. Connecting students to the rest of the world via communication technologies will allow them to compete in an increasingly globalized world.

“We want to work on the challenge of expanding educational opportunities at this Cape Verdean school while minimizing the environmental impact of that expansion and empowerment,” said the proposal.

During the St. Louis competition, the Cape Verde Venture even attracted attention from Mexico. Greene recalled talking to officials from Mexico, who told him, “We’re really interested in your project for our country, and we’ll contact you.”

“Who knows?” Greene said in response to this contact. “This could happen.”

The Cape Verde Venture is a good example of how travel to developing countries can broaden one’s horizon, while also cultivating an understanding of the beauty, philosophy, and needs in foreign cultures.

“Last year I went to Cape Verde, and that was my first time on the African continent, and it was a life-changing experience,” said Greene. “A different culture, different people, different society, different terrain. They have much less than we do, and yet their way of life is happier. ‘No Stress’ is their motto. After I came back, I was inspired to do something to help the people there. That’s how the idea started. So I went to Mo [Kaikai], and we began to brainstorm.”   

Kaikai experienced a similar transformation. “I got my inspiration when I traveled to Costa Rica and found out they run 80 percent on renewable energy, even though they are not that far-advanced in technology,” said Kaikai. “But they have different priorities from the United States, and so they have created plants to produce renewable energy. That fact and the happiness I saw there inspired me to do this project.”

These are words to live by, and Greene and Kaikai are doing exactly that with their Cape Verde Venture.

If you would like to support their initiative, please visit www.worldenergyproject.org and click the donate tab. (April 2013)