Gulu University participate in Efficiency for Access Design Challenge

By Nomanesi Makhonco, 31 May 2023

Dr Emmanuel Menya, a lecturer from Gulu University, mentor and coordinator of the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge teams share insights on participating in the Challenge.

TEA-LP partner Gulu University in Uganda is among the universities worldwide participating in  the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge, a global multi-disciplinary competition that empowers teams of university students to help accelerate clean energy access, with a focus on energy efficiency. The Challenge invites teams of university students to create affordable, high-performing off-grid appliances and enabling technologies.  The Challenge starts off with a workshop at each university and includes a series of webinars, mentorship by experts in the sector, and a prototype fund application call. The Challenge has been running for four years. The fourth year started in September 2022 and will come to an end 15th June 2023.

The Efficiency for Access Design Challenge is one of the programs run by the Low Energy Inclusive Appliance Programme (LEIA).  The TEA-LP is partnering with LEIA and Innovate UK on the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge, to support students from TEA-LP universities to participate in the Challenge and expand our network. Gulu University has been participating in the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge since 2020, with six teams having participated. It all started when communication about the Challenge was made through the TEA-LP network, which was an exciting opportunity.

The two student teams taking part in this year’s Challenge are from the Department of Biosystems Engineering at Gulu University. The first team, dubbed “Team 2022-17,” comprises final year students: Priscilla Kisakye, Ivan Taiwan, Ignatius Ekwanait, Musa Emuron, and Vanessa Fongwa. The team aims to develop a thermal electric solar refrigeration system that enhances the shelf life of perishable fruits. The team says they are targeting farmers to preserve their produce. In the design of the fridge, lighter, cost-effective materials were used in order to allow portability, also taking into consideration that most people who sell in the markets are women. As one of the team members commented:

“(Our project) focuses on the farmers in the region -most activities are small-scale subsistence farming. It’s how most people earn their living. We thought we could improve that.”

We also mainly looked at the environmental challenge brought about by conventional refrigerators, because they normally emit the CFCs and so we opted for thermal electric because it doesn’t emit any of those harmful gasses to the environment.”

“We thought it’s  convenient for them to have something which can keep and preserve, mainly agricultural produce like tomatoes, because when it ripens it can go bad very fast easily – and it leads to most of the loss of  money. “

Efficiency for Access Design Challenge participants, Team 2022-17

The second team, known as “Team 2022-19,” consists of Atim Peace Gracious, Onen Sean Thomas Ongaya, Koka Godfrey Abe, and Aide Valentine, who are also final year students. They aim to address the challenges associated with modern water heating systems that tend to be inefficient during low solar radiation periods by integrating solar and biomass heat sources in domestic hot water systems. In order to be cost effective, the team utilized already available material in their design.

“We know that there are traditional methods of heating water such as burning of wood, charcoal which are inefficient, costly and environmentally harmful.” 

“In most of the areas which are our main target, biomass is available.” 

Efficiency for Access Design Challenge participants, Team 2022-19

What makes the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge successful at Gulu University is that it links well with the University’s course curriculum, as Biosystems Engineering students are required to show design skills and be able to design renewable energy technologies as part of their coursework. As highlighted by both Dr Emmanuel Menya and students:

“In the current bachelor’s program, the curriculum is designed in such a way that students should be able to design renewable energy technologies that are not only affordable but also efficient.”

“We are learning a lot, and beyond that we are incorporating what we are learning from class and putting it practically. Most of these things we heard in class theoretically, but we are now doing them. We are looking forward to putting this in practice, it is beyond a challenge, it comes with so many benefits.”

According to Dr Menya, the project ideas that the students develop are not left unfinished as current students are able to continue the work started by previous students. Some of the project ideas have been prototyped, with the aim of attracting potential investors:

“In 2021, there was a group that worked on improving the solar powered refrigeration system that the previous cohort had designed. This other group worked towards improving the system, and the results were also very interesting.  The performance was much more enhanced  compared to the previous one.  We don’t leave the ideas on the shelf, but we want them to pick up and continue developing the ideas further, until something good materializes.”

Some of the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge innovations at Gulu university have gone on to be prototyped, including a solar UV disinfection system and a solar powered washing machine. As highlighted by Dr Emmanuel Menya, the partnerships and support within and beyond the Challenge played an important role in success of these innovations:

“One of our design teams in the first cohort, who worked on the solar UV disinfection system, won bronze. They were able to establish contact with the University of New South Wales, who have been supportive in so many ways, to the extent that they were able to start up as an organisation. They have been installing some of these systems in schools and health centres in the rural parts of the country. So already this is a clear indication of how important these collaborations are after the students have graduated.”

However, as highlighted by the students, a factor that hinders the adoption of some of these innovations, are the attitudes within the communities. There is a need to educate and raise awareness at community level within the off-grid energy sector:

“When we look at solar and the measures that are put in place, to encourage the adoption of solar, it’s quite low. So, I want to believe even if we are to take it to the local people, it’s going to meet challenges for adoption.”

 “Even if you were to take the prototype to the industries, most people, I believe, are going to have difficulty to take it up easily because of the dynamics of solar.”

Both teams participating in the Challenge have benefitted from numerous mentorship support from industry experts and academic advisors, attended webinars on specific thematic areas, honed their critical thinking, problem solving, presentation, collaboration, report writing skills, among others.

“You’re able to share experiences from different people. It opens your mind to a wider perspective of the world. So sometimes you tell the international mentor that this is what we have and then he compares it with what he has on the other side. So, you try to get a wider view of what takes place outside, beyond your country’s understanding. Then you get motivated because the webinars are quite resourceful, it changes your perspective of how you look at things.  It challenges you to become better. You actually get motivated, you get the experience that the real world.”

Although highly beneficial and impactful, the students have highlighted some of the challenges that they face whilst participating in the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge. These include balancing their studies with the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge activities. Some of the participating students are international students and so after the university closes it becomes difficult for the team to meet up. This was exacerbated by COVID -19, as highlighted by Dr Menya, who also emphasised that there is a need to increase the duration of mentorship and training, so that even after students complete their degrees, they can still engage in the Challenge and successfully complete their innovations:

“The students that currently participate in the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge are final year students who are on the verge of entering the job market. They could instead focus their effort more on actualizing these ideas. This could be achieved with more mentorship, more exposure to industries that are doing similar works or we could even attach these students to specific industries.”

Despite the challenges, both teams are highly motivated to turn their innovative ideas into reality. For instance, one of the teams has already applied for funding to facilitate prototyping its idea, and are grateful for the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge funding opportunity. With its application for funding, the team is optimistic about its chances of success and is poised to turn its thoughts and ideas into reality, thereby helping to solve some of the off-grid challenges in Uganda and beyond.

“I would not like it to stop at prototyping. Because if the problem is there, so many people are willing to take it up. I want to believe it will take us further from the prototype.”

“… the challenge is actually of a productive nature. Because, once successful, those universities or the individuals can carry it on. It could be a source of their income or a business.”

The students highly recommend participating in the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge:

“You get to bring your ideas into reality. It’s really a great initiative, a great innovation. We would definitely encourage other universities to hop on the challenge.”