Engineering research and development student Thomas Larkin shares his experience in leading a Humanitarian Engineering project in Papua New Guinea.
You know you are becoming a later year undergraduate student when your topics of normal conversation go from ‘where did you go to high school’, to graduate job opportunities and superannuation funds.
I could not help but feel a small sense of jealousy towards my friends who already appeared to know exactly where their passions and interests lay. They had found their ‘niche.’ In my four years at ANU, studying an assortment of interesting courses had left me at what could only be described as a crossroads.
In the middle of 2017, I decided to participate in an Engineers Without Borders Australia Design Summit in Cambodia, supported by a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade New Colombo Plan Scholarship. Tempted by the prospect of a government-supported escape to South-East Asia and the opportunity to apply my engineering skillsets in an environment with tangible impacts, I could not have predicted the month there would shape my studies in the way it has.
Fast-track six months to January this year when I began my honours project in humanitarian engineering. I would be working with Indigenous to Indigenous (i2i), a group that focuses on increasing the long-term prosperity of Indigenous communities. Under the supervision of Jeremy Smith from ANU and Brad Jackson from i2i, the focus of my honours project would involve designing and testing a biogas-powered cocoa bean drying oven for use in Papua New Guinea.
Cocoa beans grown in PNG are regarded by high-end chocolatiers as some of the best quality in the world. However, the beans must be correctly fermented and dried before they can be shipped overseas. Currently, incorrect and inconsistent cocoa drying practices in PNG significantly devalue the exported product.
A drying system that is cheap, robust and effective has the potential to attract foreign investment, with economic benefits flowing to rural cocoa farmers in the region.
In April I was fortunate to receive financial support from the ANU Fund, which allowed me to spend a week in Kokopo in East New Britain to collect data for the project.
The first thing that struck me about PNG was the landscape. I had read that Port Moresby is one of the only capital cities in the world not connected to any other major population centre by road. When you see the topography, this makes much more sense – jagged, green mountains rise sharply from the coastline. And on the flight from Port Moresby to Kokopo, the only signs of habitation were small villages dotted in the dense foliage.
Each day in Kokopo was different. One day I would be travelling to a cocoa bean processing facility, bouncing along a potholed dirt road in a noisy Landcruiser. The next I would be at a ceremony full of local government officials celebrating recent changes to the cocoa bean business model. That afternoon I would be at the local hardware store auditing available construction materials. Later in the week I would find myself at the cocoa bean research facility chatting to a local scientist about emerging cocoa bean drying technologies.
These diverse experiences allowed me to better understand the environment where my honours project would be focused, particularly the technological, economic and geographical constraints.
One reason I find humanitarian engineering such an interesting research area is because the problems are uncharacteristically complex. On many modern engineering challenges – from designing high-efficiency solar cells to reverse engineering of the brain – the main source of complexity is technological.
In most humanitarian engineering problems, an appropriate solution is technologically quite simple. The real challenge is designing something that is fit-for-purpose and can be constructed, operated and maintained in a diverse range of environments. And significantly, humanitarian engineering can have a profoundly tangible impact.
On my second last day, I was in a hardware store looking for oven-grade thermometers when I struck up a conversation with a local man, Peter. He was curious about what I was doing in the store and in Kokopo in general. When I explained my project, he said he was a cocoa farmer and had started picking up shifts at the store for additional income.
He said cocoa was regarded as a ‘cash crop’ but, although many of his friends had bought blocks to grow cocoa trees, there was not enough drying infrastructure to allow the farmers to maximise their profits.
I realised my honours project could be more significant than just a necessary box to be ticked on the path to graduation – it could have huge impact. Knowing there are hundreds of thousands of subsistence farmers just like Peter who could reap significant benefits from additional disposable income is a great source of motivation towards my studies this year.
Humanitarian engineering is something that I like and I think the more I immerse myself in it, the better I will become at it. I have already developed the mindset that success in this honours project will not just be a grade on a transcript but a solution than can provide long-term benefits to PNG.
More generally, the exciting aspect of this research is that I am continuing to discover fields where my engineering skillsets can be applied. Maybe this intersection of my ‘likes’ and ‘strengths’ is larger than I had anticipated.