Bricks, they are quite controversial.
What you see here is a finished pile of bricks ready for some mortar. These bricks have been left to sit here for days to cool off. There had been fires burning in each of the three gaps in the pile. The fires burnt for three or four days straight in order to dry out all those bricks. While the fire was burning the pile may have been totally open to air as you see it in the photo, or the people may have packed mud onto it in an attempt to insulate it. In either case it is hugely inefficient to heat the bricks in that manner. The wood keeping these fires burning is huge in the volume and adds to the already alarming deforestation in the country (recall the charcoal poaching issue I mentioned in an earlier post?). And poor Malawi, going into the dry season this month, needs to carry the burden of brick making right now! The brick making process requires vast amounts of water, such amounts that rivers dry up! Being just before the dry season many people are rushing to make their last bricks of the year, but the rush only exacerbates the onset of drought!
These brick piles are EVERYWHERE. I haven’t been outside of the city without seeing tons of these bricks on my drive. Knowing that these bricks drain the environment so I have been wondering how one would attempt a “better” brick. My thoughts usually settle on a project fellow Techers worked on for a class last year. Mechanical Engineering 105: Product Design for the Developing World is an awesome class that makes better technologies for developing nations. Last year a team went to Guatemala to figure out how to design a better brick making oven. I was blown away by the presentation they gave at the end of term! They had many brilliant innovations, two stand out to me right now. They replaced wood with cocoa shells. Cocoa shells are hugely inexpensive and are an otherwise a wasted resource. Brilliant. I wonder if there is a similar resource in Malawi? Maize stalks? Their oven was also completely enclosed, hugely increasing the efficiency of baking. Better efficiency is, of course, a good goal but it brings a whole new set of problems. An enclosed oven for bricks means that there is some central location and company making bricks. The current system in the Malawian countryside is that the bricks are made right on site! Would the people be interested in buying bricks from an outside supplier? Is it even possible to make and transport bricks for less money than the current system? How could a company break into this market and advertise? Is there a way to also reduce water content in bricks? You get the idea…These are the kinds of questions running through my head each time I see these brick piles.
Bricks are just one engineering dilemma here. There are also dilapidated bridges and roads, a lack of irrigation, running water, and electricity, a new railroad being put in place, etc. An engineer would be quite busy in Malawi, quite as busy as a doctor. The question I keep asking myself, as per the spirit of the Studenski Award, is whether I am more excited to jump into issues of design or health? Infrastructures or medicine? There is so much to do in both fields! So many ways to improve living conditions, to serve. What to do…what to do…