Great Expectations

Last May, her ambition brought her back to URI, where she earned her master’s in chemical engineering in 1988. While on campus, Odhiambo made a Power Point presentation at a Women in Sciences luncheon to explain the goals of the organization she has founded, the Africa Center for Engineering Social Solutions (ACESS).

“This is a limited corporation by guarantee, which means it is a charitable organization that can also make a profit and so sustain itself,” she explained. “My goal is to bring college faculty and student interns to Africa, starting with Kenya, to work on solving basic problems.

“In my field, engineering, college students work on senior projects to earn their degrees. At the end of the year, these projects are discarded. Why not instead bring students to Africa to create and implement projects that would help solve Africa’s problems?”

To underscore her point, Odhiambo showed a film illustrating existing projects she has helped start in Kenyan villages. “Kenya is a tropical country, so we can grow crops year round,” she said. “But water availability is a problem throughout Africa, and so is water loss through evaporation.”

The film showed a gravity-fed drip irrigation system channeling water directly to the roots of plants. It showed modified clay water storage pots with spigots and narrow necks to prevent evaporation and contamination. “This simple technology combines the modern with the traditional, the relevant with the convenient, and the effective with the efficient,” said Odhiambo.

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“What I am showing you here is simple stuff—it’s not even Engineering 101,” she continued. “But developing simple solutions to common problems requires improvising, creativity, innovation. And that is why I want to bring students—engineering students, business students, in fact any interested students—to Africa to work on projects that will transform people’s lives.”

“At the moment, Africa has been the recipient of so much in donor funds, yet the poverty situation does not seem to be changing. Development projects stall when the people who initiated them leave to return home. At the same time, there is a brain drain of educated Africans moving to countries with more opportunities.”

Odhiambo said she is encouraged by the warm response she received at URI: “President Carothers has covered some of the cost of my stay at URI—he has been most kind and generous. Professor John Grandin gave me space in the International Engineering House. Vice Provost Lynn Pasquerella supported me both on campus and off. Professor Robert Comerford will be helping me with small business development plans. Professor Thomas Boving of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences hopes to set up internships for students in his college.”

Odhiambo brings an irresistible combination of solid scientific training, enthusiasm, and personal warmth to her mission. When she traveled to other colleges and universities in New England, she received positive responses to her proposal from President Ruth Simmons of Brown and from administrators and faculty at Dartmouth, CCRI, and the University of Hartford.

URI’s Boving, a professor of geosciences, and former Vice Provost Pasquerella, who is now at the University of Hartford, are part of a group traveling to Kenya this month on a fact finding trip that is partially funded by Dean Jeffrey Seemann of URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences.

“The first group of interns would consist of 10 students from three institutions who would spend two weeks in Kenya working on several projects;” said Boving. “At URI, these internships would be open to interested students from any college. Then, the following semester, we would offer a seminar about the projects. We are all enthusiastic about Clarice’s ideas and committed to making them work.”

A chemical engineer who previously worked for Unilever and Coca-Cola designing products for the African market, Odhiambo has traveled all over the continent, including Eritrea (she was evacuated from Asmara when the Ethiopian-Eritrean war broke out). “I enjoyed my work,” she said, “but I have learned there is more to life than making money.”

She began to find her way when Coca-Cola named her the Africa manager of the company’s Community Water Partnership program, which brought fresh water to African villages. Odhiambo saw first hand the difference that the company’s projects made to village women who used to walk miles to muddy water holes to supply their families. With a water source close to home, the women had time to start small businesses that benefited both their families and their communities.

“I meet so many people in these villages who are much smarter than me, but who have not been given my opportunities, who are often illiterate,” said Odhiambo. “I believe in the future of Africa—there is so much untapped talent there. I’m convinced that the next big technological breakthrough will come from Africa.”

Odhiambo herself is a graduate of a Kenyan boarding school system modeled on the British system that uses a series of exams to select the brightest students for university education. As a schoolgirl, her best subjects were math, physics, and chemistry. She went on to the University of Nairobi, where she hoped to study chemical engineering. Since the subject was not offered, she majored instead in math and chemistry.

Still interested in chemical engineering after her graduation, Odhiambo decided to follow her older brother, Peter Okero ’80, to URI for her graduate training. “My brother graduated in electrical engineering. I never asked him why he chose URI, and now I will never know,” she said sadly of Peter, who died in 2004.

Peter proved to be a trailblazer. Other family members with URI ties include Danny Okero ’92, a zoology major who is now a dentist in California; Samson Okero ’91, an economics major who is now a banker in Africa; and Odhiambo’s daughter Alice Odhiambo, a marketing major who is now a sophomore.

“Alice was born in Providence at Women & Infants Hospital on Sept. 2, 1988, just as I completed my degree,” said a proud Odhiambo. “She grew up in Kenya, but she knew all her life that she wanted to go to URI.” And now Peter’s daughter Elizabeth Okero plans to keep up the family tradition by enrolling at URI in 2009.

Odhiambo made five trips to the U.S. between September 2007 and May 2008 to drum up support for the Africa Center for Engineering Social Solutions. Now back home in Kenya, she is enjoying a much-needed break and spending time with her husband, who works for the UN, at their vacation home on Lake Victoria.

By fall she’ll be back in the U.S. to cement the relationships that will help the Africa Center for Engineering Social Solutions grow and flourish. As she says, “I have plenty of ideas but no money; it is up to me to find creative ways to sustain this organization.”

By Vida-Wynne Griffin ’67, M.A. ’72