Student presses for change in Cameroon

By Jessica Thayer

Ryan Howard

Photo provided by HannahJoy Pheasant
HannahJoy Pheasant, a junior agricultural and biological engineering major from West Lafayette, Ind., worked in Cameroon on a pair of projects to improve living conditions there.
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HannahJoy Pheasant, a junior agricultural and biological engineering major from West Lafayette, Ind., spent last summer in Cameroon with Purdue's Global Engineering Program. She was there to help improve living conditions in the west central African country.

"I did not just go on a vacation, I actually got to go work on something," Pheasant said.

Her work started well before she ever boarded a plane. At Purdue, she worked with other students and faculty to design a basic utility vehicle, or BUV. These sturdy and versatile vehicles must be able to haul crops, firewood, water and people in remote areas of the country.

While helping to manage a Purdue BUV team, Pheasant started work on another project: a briquette press. The idea was to use a simple handpress to compact biomass waste (like sawdust and banana peels) into a small brick or disk that could be burned instead of firewood.

"Firewood is what is used mainly for cooking over there," Pheasant said.

However, cutting down so many trees can strain the forest and local ecosystems. The handpress was designed to provide people with an alternative. To be successful, the press would have to be easy to use.

"It's something that would be better than cutting down more trees, but not a big change to their lifestyle," she said.

Pheasant researched the idea and learned that some nonprofit organizations had similar ideas, but none had numbers or calculations. Her research aimed to change that.

After she arrived in Cameroon, Pheasant interviewed people to find out how they would use the press. She quickly learned that the people in Cameroon weren't keen about making investments in the future.

"They have a saying that 'tomorrow is far away,'" Pheasant said.

Pheasant said the initial investment in the handpress was high, even though users would save money in the long run. While she was visiting Cameroon, her goal was to see what they thought of the handpress, not try to educate them about its benefits and economics.

She found that in some areas, people were interested in making the briquettes to sell to neighbors. Based on that research, next year's design team will adapt the handpress to accommodate their needs.

"Obviously it couldn't be too expensive and they had a few other criteria and they said 'have at it,'" she said.

John Lumkes, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering and advisor for the BUV and handpress teams, helped Pheasant with the projects, but let her take the lead on the handpress assignment.