Interactive Qualifying Project Center Context

The Cape Town Project Center (CPTC) was founded in 2007 as a part of Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Global Projects Program as an opportunity for students to complete their Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP). During a fourteen week project period, students confront and solve issues that lie at the intersection of humanity, technology, and society while working with locals to improve the community in a sustainable way. Our project’s main goal is to support entrepreneurs in developing a method to effectively sell and implement sustainable, practical, and affordable energy efficient products to low income communities. We worked to understand the community needs and find possible products to improve the areas of health, safety, and environment. Through study of past projects and discussions with our sponsors and partners in Cape Town, we gathered ideas for training entrepreneurs, choosing retail centers, building relationships, and understanding community needs.

Importance of Understanding Community Needs

One WPI team worked in the informal settlement of Khayelitsha, Cape Town in 2009 to complete their IQP. Their project, Alternative Cooking Solutions for Monwabisi Park, focused on cooking options that were sustainable, inexpensive, safe, accessible, and socially acceptable (Arnold, Bass, & Clark, 2009). They looked at alternatives including wood burning and paraffin stoves and presented their findings to the community to get feedback and raise awareness.

There have been initiatives made in the past by the City of Cape Town to reduce the use of paraffin stoves and increase the use of gas stoves. However, these efforts were not well received by the community members because the gas containers were difficult to transport. In order to create a more successful outcome, the WPI project team established relationships with their co-researchers which then helped them interact with the community members. This allowed the project team to better understand the needs and current methods used in the informal settlement through their conversations and interviews. Based on the information gathered, they were able to find several cooking alternatives that satisfied the community.

This IQP project provided us with great insight on how to overcome obstacles and approach the community. It showed that there were many different options to solve a problem, but the most successful was the one that the community wants and feels best fit their lifestyle. It also demonstrated the importance of creating good relationships in order to have a positive outcome. This approach used in Khayelitsha to promote and implement sustainable cooking methods was useful in other low income communities. Since a major focus of our project was on developing an entrepreneurial aspect of selling products in a community, we also needed to build relationships with business partners and community members. Part of understanding their needs was finding a market to sell the products and looking for other products that met these needs.

Business Recommendations for Product Distributors

In an IQP project completed at the Namibia Project Center in 2010, Evaluating ‘Business Opportunities with Solar Energy in Un-Electrified Areas’, the ‘Off-Grid Energisation Master Plan’ (OGEMP) looked into installing solar powered energy shops in areas where there is no electricity (Robertson, Sandbrook, & Sheehan, 2010). A large portion of Namibia’s population gets their energy off the grid which is hindering the economic and social growth of the country. Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN) created a program that is similar to the OGEMP. This WPI IQP team’s goal was to analyze the success of the program and make recommendations to improve it.

The team looked into many factors such as economics, social implications, technical capacity, and customer satisfaction to assess the program. Their method of data collecting included shop owner interviews, residential surveys, and personal observations. From the data collected, the energy shops were seen as a viable option based on the fact that the solar systems can be paid back from their sales of energy products.

This project came up with a wide range of recommendations for the DRFN program. For example, they suggested that shop owners use an energy profiling survey to see where the most useful areas are to distribute energy products. A survey, or similar market research approach, may be valuable in our project to determine the best locations to sell the products. Additionally, the team evaluated a significant amount of recommendations for the program on different training topics. These recommendations included technical aspects of the product, the products’ capabilities, and the entrepreneurs’ involvement in the sessions. This showed the importance of proper education on the use of the product and how the energy shop owners have an influence on the success of implementation.

For our project, one thing that was important to consider was how to train the members of the community that will be selling the products. The seller has to have a good understanding of financial responsibility and how to use the product. The recommendations and methods of this project were important to consider and adapt for our project.

Developing Community Research Relationships

An IQP project conducted at the Thailand Project Center in 2013, Promoting Renewable Energy Use Through Community Based Education: Powering and Empowering Rural Thailand, offered valuable lessons about the importance of community education in promoting renewable energy technologies and their applications (Darcy, Marcinkowski, Olson, & Willer, 2013). Barriers such as technical, informational, economic, political, and knowledge obstacles make it difficult to successfully implement renewable energies. The team and their sponsor, the Population of Community Development Association (PDA), specifically looked into the knowledge barriers that caused a lack of access to information about new technologies and the social issues associated with product acceptance.

The team looked into how to best utilize and develop learning centers in the community they worked in, Mae Mo. They used a community-based approach by connecting with the residents to understand the problems the community is facing. More specifically, the team looked into energy consumption and the physical and social feasibility of the energy products.

The method of getting information consisted of visits and interviews. The interviews with target community members helped the group gain an understanding of the best design for the learning center and what ideas the community members wanted. An important part of their process was integrating the ideas of the residents with the goals of the PDA to make sure the learning center addressed both groups’ needs. The interviews allowed the team to see what the community’s energy needs were and what products are useful for them.

The most important lessons from these interviews for our work in Cape Town are: (1) it was important to understand the level of knowledge the community members had on renewable energy and (2) it was necessary to come up with a few options for products to be implemented. The team recommended that the PDA increase communication about the learning centers and educate residents about the savings and benefits of using renewable energy products. This was something we shared with the outside organizations and entrepreneurs we collaborated with in order to come up with a business model that is tailored to low income communities.

The first important lesson we learned from their project was to understand all aspects of the community where the work is being done. Some things to focus on are the communities’ economic needs, culture and social lives, ideas, and knowledge. The residents’ understanding of the products is key to being successful. Interviews were an effective way to collect data; however, it was important to have a specific group of people to interview. Lastly, a learning center can be a great way for the community to learn about the products being brought to the low income communities, allowing them to understand and see the benefits of the new technologies. Despite this project being in Thailand and less business oriented, there was a lot of information that we used to help us have a successful outcome.

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