Cross-disciplinary teams of Finnish students recently cooperated with locals to tackle problems affecting poor neighbourhoods in Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania. In Spring 2013 several issues were addressed by a group of thirty or so students from Aalto University's School of Business, School of Engineering and the School of Arts, Design and Architecture.
Principally, they sought answers to three questions:
- How can waste management work in areas that are beyond the reach of municipal services?
- How to provide dignified housing for people who have very little money?
- How to support small businesses that could help boost living standards in poor neighbourhoods?
Practical projects teach an entirely different set of skills than is learned in the classroom, and they foster a more global mindset. According to Professor Minna Halme of the School of Business, cross-disciplinary cooperation introduces participants to the thinking of other professional fields and shows how to combine different competencies. Participation in a cross-disciplinary group is inspiring for students because it shows them how much they already know about their own specialist field.
According to School of Engineering Professor Olli Varis, practical projects teach them how their own competence relates to the outside world, what kind of an impact their abilities can have and what it is possible to accomplish when working in cooperation with others. Aalto University students have been involved in sustainable development project work for years - but the pooling of resources from three separate courses, the forming of cross-disciplinary teams and strong grassroots project ownership were new features for 2013. The problems the project participants examined were identified by a local savings and loan network formed by resource-poor citizens; their group cooperates with local government to improve living conditions in poor areas.
Knowledge, methods and structures
Teams of participating students concentrated on the further development of projects that had already been launched by the locals and cooperated with them to fine-tune operating models and solve problems identified in launched initiatives. The students spent two weeks in Dar es Salaam, in addition to which they worked on their projects during the spring both before the trip and after returning home.
One of the teams worked in the neighbourhood of Keko Machungwa teaching female entrepreneurs about customer-oriented thinking, branding and networking, in addition to which they provided product development support. The team also developed a business model, which could help realise the dream of expanding from micro-entrepreneurship that many of these groups harbour.
The group stationed in Keko Mwanga B explored ways with which to facilitate waste collection, which is done by area residents themselves. One identified solution was the separation and composting of biowaste. The soil created through composting is a valuable resource and separation of biodegradable materials also reduces the volume of waste that needs to be transported out of the neighbourhood. Good waste management is important because untreated waste forms a health hazard and accumulates in the river, aggravating the risk of flooding.
The team working in the Chamaz neighbourhood wanted to discover a low-cost way to build houses for people who cannot afford even the cheapest existing alternatives. Presented solutions included shared walls and common spaces; they also proposed a wall built out of plastic bottles as an alternative to brick walls..
Attracting more attention
Students from the City in Transition, Sustainable Global Technologies and How to Change the World courses took part in this project. School of Business lecturer Sara Lindeman served as project coordinator and she says that the intention is to continue developing established systems together with the same organisations and on the same themes in coming years. Aalto University students also cooperated with local journalism students in Dar es Salaam. Professor Minna Halme recalled that she was often asked why projects were not left entirely in local hands. In Tanzania, only very few people go to university and prosperous locals may have very little knowledge of life in the poor neighbourhoods. Participation by a foreign university makes the subject more interesting and joint projects facilitate the flow of information. Sara Lindeman observes that cooperation is becoming closer and closer each year. In addition, the schemes realised this time have helped draw attention to conditions in poor neighbourhoods also from other actors.
One of the cooperation partners was the local Finnish embassy. They spread the word about the work undertaken by the Finnish students and Tanzanian locals, and Finnish government ministers Alexander Stubb and Heidi Hautala visited the Keko Machungwa district whilst in the region in May 2013.