Ecuador ’14 Week 1: Earth Toilets and Raspberry Pis

Hi from Ecuador! I’m thrilled to be publishing the first blog post on behalf of the EcoHouse 2014 Placement team in Quito. We’ve had an incredible first week acclimatising to the altitude, meeting local TECHO directors and volunteers, and embarrassing ourselves in Spanish. More below!

THE BLUE OFFICE

Since our arrival at the end of July, we’ve spend almost every weekday at the TECHO Ecuador office from 9 to 5, working on a number of research projects and preparing for construction week (2–8 August). The office environment here is fantastic. While we moved from the slouchy beanbags to a large wooden desk on the second day (sadly, there weren’t enough lazy chairs for all of us), we’re surrounded by bright blue walls decorated with framed black-and-white photographs, shelves piled high with old computer monitors, cables and keyboards, and a huge whiteboard dominated by the phrase “Esta oficina tiene 0 dias sin sarcasmo.” (Translation: This office has gone 0 days without sarcasm – a number that has been firmly fixed for two weeks).

Photos from the TECHO Ecuador office

CASA SIN TECHO

The team also visited a small neighbourhood (barrio) hidden within a middle-class residential area in Quito, where there were a number of dilapidated TECHO homes. We looked at houses which were abandoned shortly after a land dispute, in which a local company claimed to have ownership rights over the land and asked the families who were resident there to start paying rent. Deciding to leave, the families took with them the metal roof (techo) of the house, which they could go on to sell or reuse.

 Abandoned TECHO houses in Quito

In the few days running up to construction, we’ve outlined EcoHouse’s objectives for the placement, with the core focus areas being the permanent house and the bamboo house (more about these in future blogposts!), as well as sustainable sanitation and education.

THE EARTH TOILET

Alex has been leading the research into sustainable sanitation in housing (the rest of us are becoming slightly concerned about his obsession with toilets), and has become an expert on everything from Fundacion in Terris – an earth toilet design which received a $1,000,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – to simplified sewage, a stripped-down sewage network suitable for unplanned, low-income areas.

It’s worrying how the 2,000 TECHO houses built in Ecuador so far do not include any type of sanitation or eco-toilet design. Most rural families use basic pit latrines – essentially, holes in the ground – which, as we’ve discovered post-construction, many are ashamed of, directing TECHO and EcoHouse volunteers to neighbouring houses with manually-flushable Western-style toilets (which, again, lead to pit latrines). A cheap and sustainable earth toilet could vastly improve the quality of life and level of hygiene for impoverished households across Ecuador and Latin America.

TECHO Ecuador agrees with us, and is beginning to roll out houses with Fundacion in Terris bathrooms next week. We’re keen to support their implementation, as well as assess their effectiveness and compare them to other designs – particularly with regards to the permanent house we’re continuing to develop in Ecuador.  

Mapping The Next Silicon Valley

Is Ecuador the next Silicon Valley? With the creation of a brand-new, state-of-the-art “City of Knowledge” in Yachay, and with Edward Snowden having sought asylum here, it seems increasingly likely. Tech-savvy Sarah and (fairly clueless) I have been researching Ecuador’s levels of computer literacy and the amount of investment in technology. President Correa is keen to lead knowledge-based economy here, and has spent his two terms in office promoting technology-based careers, extending basic internet access to rural areas, and founding a new high-tech university at Yachay. Currently, an average of 1,200 IT students graduate in Quito, 90% of whom go onto work in technology-related careers – a field which pays between $800 and $3,000 a month, well above the national minimum wage of $264. 

However, the lack of opportunities in Ecuador mean that a large pool of talented IT and computer scientists move abroad to work. To further promote the knowledge economy and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, there is a need to start at the roots by providing children with an education in computers. This is where EcoHouse comes in.

The £25 Fist-Sized Computer

We’re focusing our energy on the potential applications of Raspberry Pis in technology education. Teaching kids some basic coding could plant them firmly on the path to a degree in computer science or electronics engineering at a top university in Ecuador or abroad, giving them the opportunity to enter a career which will help them lift their country and community out of poverty.

So why are Raspberry Pis the best way to do this? While the propensity for tech companies to name themselves after edibles is getting a bit annoying, Raspberry Pis are, in truth, pretty sweet. They’re super-cheap, lightweight and extremely versatile. They’re already being used for hundreds of initiatives across the world, with pilot projects in Cameroon and India teaching children how to code and speak English. 

High import tariffs on electronics across most of Latin America mean that Raspberry Pis cost a fair bit more to buy locally, which is why we’ve brought four over with us. We’re now focusing on continuing the work of last year’s EcoHouse team in Ecuador, by loading them with stripped-down versions of Khan Academy and Wikipedia. The Pis can be connected to an old TV screen or computer monitor, and then used to project educational and interactive videos in schools. 

Our main concern is the sustainability of the project – essentially, we’re worried about whether it can continue operating after we leave – an issue which can be tackled by training local teachers in how to use the Pis, and getting future placement teams to follow up on their progress every summer. This has already proved successful at rural schools in India, where a pilot program provided teachers with one Pi per every 4-5 students, who could then code by hand and test out their results on their computer as a group.

That’s it for now – keep posted for more news!

– Eleni Courea

 

P.S. Here’s an email from Alexis – TECHO’s Director of Construction in Ecuador – with instructions of how to prepare for the week in Montecristi.

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