The IEEE Photonics Society’s Membership Council, its respective Committees, i.e., Globalization, Diversity Oversight, Education, as well as the Humanitarian & Public Imperative Committee have granted several student chapters throughout Africa with educational and/or humanitarian funding. 

Below are a few high-impact projects that took place in the second half of 2021, which garnered internal and external accolades across the IEEE and photonics community-at-large.

IEEE Kenyatta University Student Chapter Nanosatellite Project

From the tiny room of the Chandaria Incubation Centre at Kenyatta University in Kenya, student leaders of the University’s IEEE Photonics Student Chapter and IEEE Student Branch created a nanosatellite prototype granted by the Kenya Space Agency (KSA). The IEEE Photonics Society also supported the prototype project with educational seed funding to help organize a series of training sessions. 

The nanosatellite, named “KU Cube”, measures 10 by 10 centimeters, and weighs one kilogram, which the team says was one of the conditions set by the regulator, the KSA. It is designed to be light to launch but also to cut cost once mass-produced. The team of 11 student members and three advisors, drawn from different disciplines, have been working on the project since last year

“We took up the challenge after a call for proposals by the Kenya Space Agency last year. Fast and effective communication has become crucial in life and satellites will become a must in the future,” says Fidel Makatia, the team leader and chapter chair.

In October, the nanosatellite was launched at a formal ceremony and is currently operating in test orbit.  It will orbit 37 kms from the Earth’s surface for two years before, if all goes well, the agency plans to launch a space-grade satellite into space. The lower earth orbit phase is set for 2022.

The KU Cube is made up of locally manufactured materials, the computer motherboard, and the operating system. The cube is powered by a small solar panel fitted to it and the outer case was 3D printed at the university. It has a low-resolution camera that will send pictures to the ground station, located at the university, where it will be processed and interpreted.

The overall purpose of the nanosatellite is to help farmers in Kenya predict and mitigate agricultural disasters, such as locust invasion. The students also focus on aerial surveillance and gathering information on weather patterns and natural disasters, like flooding, that are likely to affect farmers.

The KSA in 2020 supported the creation of five model satellites, all serving different humanitarian and sustainable needs, and launched the satellites on October 14, 2021. The universities granted funding by the KSA were: Kenyatta University (KU), Moi University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT), the Technical University of Kenya (TUK) and the University of Nairobi (UON). JKUAT, in which the Society also has a student chapter, launched a satellite that encompassed a thermal imager. The imager was designed to monitor surface temperatures and additional tasks, such as tracking wildebeest migration.

Speaking at the 2021 event was the acting director-general of KSA, Col. Hillary Kosgey, who affirmed the agency’s commitment to support space systems, engineering, and development research at the university level. The KSA plans to further its support and has contracted Swift Lab, an aerospace startup that develops drones to maintain, produce and fly the nanosatellites in the future. 

Excerpts for this article came from IEEE Kenyatta University Student Chapter reports and All Africa/Daily Nation releases: David Muchunguh; Photo Credits: Kenyatta University

IEEE Kyambogo University Student Chapter “Pads for Her” Project

The IEEE Kyambogo University (Uganda) Student Chapter actively supports underserved communities and women by collaborating on a social impact program called “Pads for Her”, which addresses the need for Sustainable Reusable Sanitary Pad training. The Chapter held a reusable pad training event funded by IEEE Women in Photonics, IEEE Uganda Section Branch, and IEEE SIGHT in Karamoja, Uganda with over 100 participants – girls, boys, parents, and educators from local school districts.

Period poverty in Africa affects girls and women by preventing them from working and going to school. Per UNESCO research, one in 10 girls in Africa miss school because they don’t have access to menstrual products, or because there aren’t safe, private toilets to use at school. In Kenya alone, approximately 50 percent of school-age girls do not have access to menstrual products and throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, some girls will miss as much as 20% of their school year; some may drop out of school altogether. With limited education, there is less of a chance for girls to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty. This creates stigma surrounding periods. 

The training was designed to promote sustainability and independence for young women pursuing academics. The goal is to eliminate the barrier to stay in school and the Section plans to train over one million schoolgirls on how to make their own reusable pads in the next 5 years. 

The IEEE Kyambogo University Student Chapter plans to facilitate additional training in 2022 and partner with organizations where girls’ clubs can learn about their bodies, menstruation, and health, as well as build confidence and come together to advocate for their education and rights.

Excerpts and stats for this article came from and Photo credits: Kyambogo University

IEEE JKUAT Photonics Solar Installation Project

Blessed Peace Children’s Home, Makindu, Kenya

“Science can amuse and fascinate us all, but it is engineering that changes the world”, as Isaac Asimov, Professor of Biochemistry, put it. There is no limit to the possibilities engineering has in empowering and changing the lives of millions of people who feel powerless and forgotten in society. This simple cause led a team of six [Lydia Kipkorir, Leah Ndirangu, Dorcas Litunya, Delphine Nyaboke, Laurene Ngoya, and Rosemary Litunya] from IEEE Photonics JKUAT Student Chapter, in Kenya, to use its annual seed funding for a project aimed at building a standalone photovoltaic system for a children’s facility in a marginalized, off-grid community. The student’s leaders set out to empower children to learn while using a renewable source of energy. 

Planning Phase

The project commenced by searching for a suitable children’s home. This process took quite a while because the Chapter conducted countless interviews with prospective centers. They relied on their community to help find the most suitable and deserving center for this project and were drawn to a childcare center, Blessed Peace Children’s Rescue Center, in Makindu, Makueni County. In Makindu, the Chapter found that the high rate of poverty caused the inhabitants of the area to abandon children not out of negligence, but due to being able to provide basic needs.  This led to children being left at the hands of the rescue centers. The center was in a marginalized community that had no access to electricity, and the kids required electricity to learn as well as for security. 

Blessed Peace Children’s Rescue Center has a capacity of 185 children among whom: 10 are in university, 25 in secondary school, 140 in primary school, and 10 are below 5 years, yet to join school. On reaching the site, the Chapter immediately knew it had found the right place to conduct the project. There were so many young kids in primary school who would really benefit from being able to study at night, especially during the closure of schools over the pandemic. This was one big step for the team, as the site was 5 KM from the main power grid.

On account of finding a suitable site for the project, the student leaders began designing the photovoltaic system with the help of incredibly talented engineers in this field who took their time to assist [Ignatius Maranga (Advisor, IEEE JKUAT IPS Student Chapter & Renewable Engineer), Kithinji Muriungi (Chair, IEEE IPS Kenya Chapter) and Steve Ngoje (Senior Solar PV Design Engineer, Illumina Africa)]. The next big step was looking for good suppliers, accumulating different quotations and picking the most feasible option for purchase. After analyzing the different quotations, partnering with Chloride Exide Kenya, Ecodesh Power Solutions and Illumina Africa Limited were the best options. After purchasing the equipment, what was left was setting a date for execution and getting more volunteers to join the team during the implementation of the project.

Implementation Phase

On the first day of the project 23 volunteers, both IEEE and non-IEEE members, joined the effort. The volunteers set out on their journey to Makindu (Almost 200KM from Nairobi) in the early morning to ensure an early return due to COVID-19 curfew restrictions. The Chapter reached Makindu safely and were cordially welcomed by the children and their caretakers. The volunteers played a few games and interacted with the kids before they started the actual work. It was nice to bond with children and get to know the center which would be impacted greatly by the project. I was clear that they felt safe with us.

The Chapter was divided into different teams. Some were on the roof while others were working on mounting the inverter on the wall. The volunteers worked until darkness encroached. On Day 2, the volunteers set out to make more progress on the project, re-visiting the following weekend with a few volunteers. This time the Chapter recruited a few apprentices among the kids from the children’s home, Wambua and Kelvin, who were so eager to learn and try to understand how the system worked. They helped with getting us the tools and asked thoughtful questions throughout the process.

However, it is typical for any project to encounter challenges! After finalizing all the connections, the volunteers went ahead and switched on the system to see if it worked. And Alas! To our surprise the bulbs lit for about 3 seconds and then the inverter detected an error. It was such an anticlimax for us since we were so excited, but a system design error caused the fuse in the inverter to blow. We then had to return it to our supplier to fix the component. and return it. 

Ecodesh, the supplier, was more than willing to assist with everything. The Chapter obtained the items needed for additional protection, got the fuse replaced, and headed back the following weekend with more caution. After connecting again, the system was switched on and the bulbs lit, and this time everything worked! It was a great feeling. The kids from Blessed Peace Makindu Children’s Home now had electricity. Their patience had finally paid off, especially for Wambua, Kelvin, and their guardian Samson who had been with the student leaders throughout.

Everything the Chapter worked so hard for as a team was accomplished. Moreover, the kids were so happy that they finally had electricity. For every hardship encountered, inspiring a few future engineers among the kids made it all worth it. The student leaders couldn’t express enough the beauty that came from making a difference. It was priceless, and embodied what IEEE emphasizes by inspiring the world with technology. This project gave the student members firsthand experience that was truly life changing and eye-opening to the limitless possibilities the engineering profession can offer. 

Special thanks goes to: IEEE Photonics Society Staff & Leadership; the IEEE Photonics JKUAT Chapter volunteers: Lydia Kipkorir, Leah Ndirangu, Eunice Vele, Sera Mania, Mercyline Tuwei; the IEEE Kenya Section Volunteers: Sally Musonye, Mercy Chelangat, Esborn Orina, Marta Chaltu, Kithinji Muriungi; the Blessed Peace Children’s Home family and other volunteers: Cliff Mburu, Kendi Muchungi, and Joe Kuria; and all partners who participated during the project design, implementation, and commissioning.

This article was contributed by: Lydia Kipkorir (Chair, IEEE JKUAT IPS Student Chapter) and Leah Ndirangu (Vice-Chair, IEEE JKUAT IPS Student Chapter). Photo Credits: IEEE Photonics JKUAT Chapter