GO Abroad: South Africa

As an international student at the University of Illinois, every semester for me is a semester I have studied abroad. As such, I was always indifferent to the various study abroad opportunities available at the University. 1 semester (roughly four months of the year) in a third country seemed too much of a commitment especially if I was spending most of my time taking classes and preparing for exams.  All that changed this Summer when I found a program that would be a good fit for me.

The South Africa Summer Work Project was started as a collaboration between  the College of ACES at UIUC and University of Kwa Zulu Natal (UKZN) in Pietermaritzburg, the only University in South Africa to have an agricultural engineering program. Students from UIUC spend four weeks at UKZN helping South African students work on their senior design engineering projects. The project I worked on was the Design, Construction and Evaluation of a Small Grains Dehuller for Rural Farmers. One of the problems faced by rural farmers in South Africa and other Southern African countries is the local processing (dehusking, separation and cleaning) of grains after harvest and before they are sold. The current methods for carrying out these postharvest farm operations are manual, time consuming and put an inordinate burden on women and girls working on farms who usually end up doing the majority of these tasks. These small scale rural farmers unfortunately do not have the resources/infrastructure for technologically advanced equipment such as the combines used in the Midwest. Unfortunately, the manual methods also cause damage to the grains leading to postharvest loss which means the grain is unusable and has to be thrown away even before getting on the market. All the time, resources and not to mention the environmental impact of growing the grains is for nothing !  

Sensing an opportunity, my South African teammates came up with a design for a simple pedal powered and pulley driven machine which dehulled, separated and cleaned the grain all at once. This simple machine would speed up postharvest operations and minimise grain damage, while having minimal environmental footprint due to being pedal powered like a bike instead of running on fuel. I helped during the construction phase of the project and to create a machine from scratch and being able to visualize how each part made the entire system work was one of the most rewarding parts of this experience.

We worked on the projects during the weekdays and on the weekends and public holidays we explored South Africa. Many of the excursions were wildlife and conservation based as South Africa is home to more than 200 species of mammals, 850 species of birds, 112 species of fish and 84 species of amphibians.

The highlight of the South African weekend excursions was a three day  visit to the Hluhluwe- Imfolozi Game Reserve. It is the oldest natural reserve in Africa and is the only reserve where all the big five animals (Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo) are found together. We managed to spot all of the big five apart from Leopard. We were lucky enough to see  a pride of lions sitting on the side of the road as the big cats rarely come out in the open. We saw a plethora of other animals such as giraffe, zebra, 5-10 different types of antelope and also a lone cheetah.  As we stared in awe at all these animals roaming in their natural habitat, we also realized the big challenge these game reserves would be facing from poachers. Poaching had caused the white rhino to especially come close to extinction. There were only about 50 rhinos left in the Hluhluwe- Imfolozi Park at one point but through protection and conservation efforts the park was able to grow the population enough to translocate the rhinos to other reserves to breed. As a result, the white rhino is no longer considered critically endangered.

Whether it was working in the farm workshop or visiting the uShaka aquarium in Durban or hiking in the Drakensburg mountains or driving through the Imfolozi game reserve there was one common theme I witnessed: the emphasis on environmental stewardship and respect for natural resources. This is the attitude which the world needs to develop if we are to survive and thrive


– By: Husain Kurawadwala

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