College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Engineering in Africa: Iowa State professor makes a global impact

Situated near the northern border of a country with a long history of violence, political instability, and disease is the Bilingual Christian University of Congo (UCBC), a school offering promise and hope to a community that has endured years of loss and strife.

Bilingual Christian University of Congo (UCBC) front gate
Bilingual Christian University of Congo (UCBC) front gate

Launched in 2007, the university is part of the Congo Initiative, which promotes higher education, Christian leadership development, and community transformation to the people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). With approximately 400 students enrolled, UCBC is looking at an expansion to accommodate 3,000.

The university’s plan for growth eventually became an opportunity that was too moving for one Iowa State professor to pass up.

Tim Ellis, associate professor of civil, construction, and environmental engineering (CCEE), spent two weeks of this semester on a volunteer work trip to help design a water/wastewater treatment system for UCBC.

When he first heard about the project through the non-profit organization Engineering Ministries International (EMI), Ellis wasn’t necessarily planning to get involved. “They were looking for renewable energy ideas, such as solar and biogas,” he says. Biogas, the name given to treating wastewater with anaerobic digestion to generate fuel, is a renewable energy source that is commonly used for cooking and generating electricity.

He later checked back in with EMI to find the organization hadn’t yet identified an expert in biogas. “The project aligned so well with my interests, I knew it was something I should get involved with,” Ellis says. “It was a way for me offer my knowledge and service to a good cause.”

Tim Ellis and three neighborhood children at UCBC.

While the timing for the site visit wasn’t necessarily the greatest for a professor—Ellis had to head to Africa right in the middle of the spring semester—he received full support from CCEE’s interim chair Terry Wipf, coordinated a postdoctoral student to help with his teaching duties, and in February, he joined ten engineers and architects from the United States and Canada heading to DRC.

Under the direction of David Kasali, who grew up in DRC and experienced first-hand the negative effects of the war through the loss of family members, UCBC integrates academics, work, and service learning, rooted in Christian ethics. “David has a vision for bringing peace and stability to his country through education, and it’s very inspiring,” Ellis says. “He really brings out hope in the lives of students living in an area that has so much poverty and unrest.”

The university is located on a 100-acre site with a small river running through it. There’s one academic building on the land, along with several utility sheds where generators and maintenance supplies are stored. A large amphitheater/auditorium space is under construction and is being used temporarily for classrooms.

“It’s a neat site with a lot of great resources,” Ellis says. “The challenge for the university rests in finding a way to utilize what’s available to meet the needs of the increased population.”

The group focused on three main technical components—electricity, water, and wastewater. With no electrical grid in DRC, residents use generators of their own or share with neighbors to power their homes. Water primarily comes from a contaminated spring on the site, which is shared with the surrounding community, along with municipal water that is only available for a few hours a day due to a lack of electricity to run the plants.

Estimating water flow of the river on UCBC campus.
Estimating water flow of the river on UCBC campus.

“Providing a clean, reliable water source is definitely a big problem for the campus. We’re not sure that even after cleaning up the water from the spring, the two sources would be enough to satisfy the water demand.” Ellis explains. “Naturally, the next option would be to drill a well, but we couldn’t find one in the vicinity to see if it’s a viable alternative.”

The group also spent time assessing hydropower from the small river on the site. After evaluating the elevation difference and the amount of water flow, the group determined this could be an alternate, but not primary, source of electricity.

When it came to biogas, Ellis says there’s not enough waste for it to be a main electrical source. “Even when the campus reaches its full capacity, there’s probably not enough material there to generate a whole lot of electricity. It’d certainly be enough for cooking, even doing some nighttime lighting,” he says. He added that bringing in livestock and agriculture could provide some extra waste to make biogas a greater energy source.

For the project to stay on course and be successful, Ellis says local support and ownership is important, adding that EMI’s experience with the area make it a great asset for UCBC. The organization can help the school make the most of local resources and implement appropriate equipment that is compatible with systems in place, such as generators and building materials.

Students helping conduct tests on campus.

The students are another source of support for the university, offering assistance for construction and landscaping projects as thanks for the opportunity UCBC provides to them. Ellis had the chance to talk with one such student while the student was headed to his mud hut to look for his cell phone charger. “I’m amazed at how in one sense the DRC is so different from the United States in terms of modern developments, but at the same time they have fairly recent technologies that make the distinctions seem less extreme,” he says.

While e-mail and cell phones allow for better communication in the country, other important infrastructure such as municipal utilities and roadways are non-existent or very unreliable. Generating its own electricity will be expensive for the university, which is why renewable options were so important for the group to investigate. The roadways leading in and out of Beni, the town in which UCBC is located, are paved for only a short stretch. Beyond that, it’s dirt or gravel, and some former roads have been over taken by forest so they are no longer usable.

With so many factors to consider, the engineers and architects who visited DRC will be assembling detailed plans and recommendations for the university over the next couple of months. Once they submit the ideas and UCBC decides on final plans, the school will seek governmental and private funding to build out everything in phases.

Ellis says he doesn’t have a contractual obligation with the project, but he will remain available to provide support with biogas if UCBC elects that option. “It’d be a great opportunity to see how everything is going and help them get started,” he says. “The Congolese people have good hearts and are full of hope. If they can keep the positive momentum, they will be in good shape.”