A month out in Africa: Honors student Olivia Pinkowski helps plan automotive repair center and mechanic school in Kenya with GlobalResolve
Imagine automotive repair and maintenance services like you would find at a Big O Tires or Auto Zone shop being available in the African outback.
Barrett Honors College students have envisioned this and are helping to make it a reality.
Olivia Pinkowski, a junior honors student studying robotic engineering at the ASU Polytechnic campus, spent the month of June this summer at the Massia Mara game reserve in Kenya working on a project to build an automotive maintenance and repair shop, as well as a mechanic school, in the remote location near the border of Tanganyika.
Her work was part of GlobalResolve, a service learning program in Barrett Honors College that began in 2006 by helping provide clean water in a Ghanaian village and that today consists of partners and projects ranging from clean cook stoves to improved crop production in 13 countries in Asia, Africa and North and South America.
Pinkowski, who took a GlobalResolve class last spring, was on a team of students who worked on blueprints and measured land to determine where to place buildings.
“There were no Google maps. We used lasers and metered sticks to measure the dips in the land and the water flow to figure out the best areas to build on,” Pinkowski said.
She also interviewed local mechanics to learn how they do their jobs and what type of structures and equipment would meet their needs.
“They do service differently and comply with different safety regulations. We wanted to make sure we were not planning an American facility in Kenya, but a Kenyan facility in Kenya,” she said.
Pinkowski and her fellow students started their trip in Narobi, the Kenyan capital, where they stayed in an Airbnb rental for a couple of days. They were taken by bus, Land Cruiser and small vans across the arid African plains to the Massia Mara game reserve, where they stayed in tents pitched in an outdoor campground for several weeks.
“We had a fence between us and the hyenas, elephants, zebras and other wildlife. There were night watchmen to keep us safe. It was a beautiful and wonderous experience,” she said.
We caught up with Pinkowski to learn more about her experience and the project she worked on. Here’s what she had to say.
Getting to Africa is quite an undertaking. Tell us about how you got there.
To arrive in the Maasai Mara I flew through Paris, France to Nairobi, Kenya. The flights were each approximately eight hours. From Nairobi, the group drove out to the Mara. It took approximately eight hours of driving. The trip length can vary between six and ten hours depending on traffic and weather conditions. There was another option to fly from Nairobi to the Mara in a bush plane. That trip only lasts about 45 minutes but it is an additional $300, so we all opted to drive.
The Land Cruiser is not allowed in Nairobi for safety reasons, so our entire group of 20 took a bus from Nairobi to Narok. Narok is about the half way point between Nairobi and the Mara. Along the way we stopped at the Great Rift Valley edge and took photos then continued on. Once in Narok, we transferred into Land Cruisers and smaller vans. We then caravanned to the camp located three kilometers away from Talek town. Talek boarders the Maasai Mara game reserve. I enjoyed the trip both coming and going. It was peaceful and serene. I enjoyed the landscape and the animals we could see. I would make the trip again, provided the opportunity and I think it was worth it.
Tell us more details about the project in Kenya.
The automotive center is a student lead project that encompassed two capstones, a graduate class project, and a Global Resolve team last semester. There were 16 students involved with the project last spring. The center will be located near the Maasai Mara in Kenya, next to the Maasai Education and Resource Center (MERC).
Approximately two acres of community land was donated to this project. The facility will include a classroom to facilitate an automotive curriculum designed by ASU students for the Maasai people, a functioning automotive garage with lifts, a dormitory for staff and students, and a community gathering area. The school will offer three levels of certification, including beginner, intermediate, and advanced.
The facility will be off the grid and run off solar panels with a diesel generator for back up. It will also collect rain water to operate toilets, car wash stations, and any other water needs. The facility will be constructed from local materials, found in Kenya, allowing for repairs and improvements to be made in the future. This includes the electrical micro grid system that the facility will run on.
Kenyan contractors were in discussions with our project's leadership this past summer for quotes and estimations. The garage will operate as a business, allowing for community funds to remain within the community. A goal is to have the facility built in the next year or two and operated by Maasai people within five years of its construction.
What specifically was your involvement with the project?
Over the summer our team measured the gradient of the land. This allowed us to determine the best position for the buildings. We redesigned the facility to involve a tiered design, as the facility will have to sit on a hill. The tiered design will help reduce the cost of building the facility by minimizing the required area of land needing to be one level. The facility size and layout was also finalized this past summer. The team laid markers on the land to help the Maasai people visualize the facility on the land. These markers were cemented into the ground and will serve as reference for the coming construction.
Why is this project necessary?
Within the Mara and the MERC Center, there are no licensed mechanics. If someone’s vehicle breaks down and requires a major repair or if they want a certified mechanic they must drive 150 kilometers through mostly dirt roads to the nearest large city, Narok. Unfortunately, many drivers have reported that the local mechanics closer to the Mara charge up to 10 times the standard amount and/or they rig the vehicle to break down again, causing repeat service. These mechanics come from outside communities and take the funds away from Maasai land.
These vehicles operate as the livelihood of a family and often multiple families. The tour guides will often sponsor or support other families if they are struggling or just developing their trade. This means when a vehicle is down, the families struggle and sometimes suffer. The project was designed to help mitigate these issues. The parts and repairs won't be terribly marked up and the school will provide knowledge on how much something should cost and how things operate and look within the vehicle.
Ideally this would help them identify if something was tampered with or repaired incorrectly. This facility will provide services similar to a Big O Tires or an AutoZone, including but not limited to, oil changes, filter changes, shocks and suspension, transmission, and engine work. The idea is to provide full service to the vehicles of the area, within reason.
How will the construction of the auto center and mechanic school be handled?
We will not personally be building the facility, it will be contracted out. That is for regulation requirements, safety, and time. Since the students are unable to be in Kenya for an extended period of time, community members were appointed to help track and establish progress and be points of contact for us here in the States.
Would you recommend the GlobalResolve program to other students?
I would recommend Global Resolve to students because it’s a fun class that makes a difference in the world. It's structured differently than other classes and I enjoyed the team dynamics for finding solutions. The projects were interesting and challenged us to think in new ways to find solutions. This project allowed me to grow in my modeling and analytical skills. We had to justify everything we did and our team made amazing progress toward the completion of this facility. Having a purpose and an end goal made completing the work more satisfying.
Personally, I found great friends and I made new connections to mentors and faculty. The class provided the opportunity to travel and expand my cultural knowledge. I enjoyed meeting the Maasai people and working with them to help make their lives better.
A great part of the trip was climbing a seven meter (approximately 20-foot) water tower to watch the sunset. The camp would meet at the top and sing or chat while looking out over the Mara. It was stunning and gorgeous. The world looked peaceful and in harmony from the top of that tower.
Another favorite activity included the safaris. We were able to go out with Maasai community members and experience the animals through their culture and their knowledge. This project has provided me a network that extends around the world and has helped create a second family, also extending around the world. The personal connections were my favorite part of participating with this project.