Exploring Ethiopia: Students and faculty encounter the consequences of energy poverty

“When I studied and interned abroad during college,” said Hilary Landfried ’13, “I cooked with my host families—often over wood fires and dirty stoves. It was through these experiences that I first became acquainted with the fact that cooking can be deadly.”

Landfried now works at Project Gaia Inc. (PGI), a nonprofit that promotes sustainable, alcohol fuels for clean cooking in an effort to improve global health, reduce harmful emissions, and alleviate energy poverty. With its headquarters in Gettysburg, PGI is working to prevent illnesses resulting from wood and charcoal smoke inhalation—which cause 4 million deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization—through projects in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. The nonprofit also boasts a strong partnership with the College. Since 2008, 16 Gettysburg students and alumni have interned, worked, or conducted research with PGI.

This spring, PGI embarked upon a new College partnership—this time with Gettysburg’s Office of Experiential Education—to help students and faculty learn more about the health and environmental impacts of cooking with biomass fuels as they trekked the Ethiopian highlands. The trip was the brainchild of Landfried and Tucker Little ’13, assistant director of experiential education.

“With Project Gaia’s work as the foundation for our itinerary, we created a trip that was engaging, complex, and dependent upon the physical, emotional, and mental engagement of the whole group,” Little said. “These same elements are at the core of every GRAB program, but our partnership with Project Gaia—the connections, the people, the real-world application—elevated this experience to the next level.”

As a unique component to the trip, the students were joined by Professor and Chair of Psychology Kathy Cain, who was seeking on-the-ground experience to inform her first-year seminar, The World’s Children. “The trip gave us an incredible opportunity to learn about these issues firsthand and to meet mothers and children with different kinds of cooking arrangements,” she said, adding, “and the experience of trekking with the group gave me a much stronger appreciation of the ways that GRAB supports the development of student leadership and emotional maturity.”

Ashenafi Tesema '04 speaks to students about his work with the African Child Policy Forum

Ashenafi Tesema '04 speaks to students about his work with the African Child Policy Forum.

As part of the 15-day expedition, participants met with PGI’s Ethiopian staff in the capital city of Addis Ababa to discuss their work with UN refugee camps and their current initiatives to promote ethanol cookstoves. They also spent an evening with Ashenafi Tesema ’04, an Ethiopian native who returned home to work for the Africa Child Policy Forum after graduating with majors in computer science and management. Tesema spoke about his role at the Forum; the current political, social, and cultural landscape of Ethiopia; and how his work connects with the health and environmental issues tackled by Project Gaia.  

To obtain a better understanding of PGI’s work in the region, the group also met with members of the Former Women Fuelwood Carriers Association (FWFCA)—an organization dedicated to providing women with safe and productive alternatives to the illegal gathering of fuelwood. They learned about PGI’s partnership with the FWFCA since 2006, and visited the construction site of an ethanol microdistillery that will allow women to earn a living producing and selling clean ethanol fuel. “Our hope is that this project helps bring our work full circle,” says PGI’s Assistant Director Brady Luceno ’09. “Through this microdistillery, the same people who used to be collecting the wood will be producing a clean fuel and selling that, instead.”

The trip also included multiple hiking excursions—the most illuminating of which was their ascent of Mount Entoto, a mountain frequently traveled by women collecting wood for cooking and sale. The participants hiked Entoto alongside some of these women, who told them about the grueling process of collecting fuelwood, and how it can take up to 15 hours to gather and transport a single bundle. They also learned about the inherent danger of this work, and how many of these women travel in groups to reduce the risk of attack and sexual assault.

Kongi, a member of the FWFCA, performs a traditional coffee ceremony on an ethanol stove as PGI Employee Frehiwot Hailu translates

Kongi, a member of the FWFCA, performs a traditional coffee ceremony on an ethanol stove as PGI Employee Frehiwot Hailu translates.

These personal encounters with the fuelwood carriers not only broadened the group’s understanding of energy poverty issues in the country, they also helped them to make connections with their work back on campus. “Learning about different countries in the classroom is very important,”said environmental studies major Maggie Laurino ’16, “but visiting these areas allows students to take their learning to a deeper level. This spring, I took a sociology course called Global Fertility: Perspectives on Population Change and Policy, and in the course we often talked about the many differences in populations between the developed and developing worlds. During this trip, I felt like I gained a better understanding of the factors we discussed in class.”

The other half of the trip was spent hiking in the Bale Mountains, a national park spanning 2,150 square kilometers and comprising five major vegetation zones. The group traveled with a local guide, and received food and housing from local families. These interactions allowed them to support an alternative livelihood to harmful deforestation practices that had formerly been the region’s most common source of income—and by engaging with the communities through which they traveled, they also received valuable insights into the local landscape and ways of life.

“It’s hard to picture what a country that is 98 percent deforested looks like, but our time outside the city helped provide context for that statistic,” Little said. “I think hiking through the rural villages gave the group an appreciation for both the natural beauty of Ethiopia and how dangerous dirty fuels in unventilated areas can be.”

The group’s time in the mountains also gave them an opportunity to reflect upon what they had seen throughout the week, and to have thoughtful discussions about the nature of the trip and of their roles in advocating and fostering positive change.

This cultivation of informed advocacy and a sense of collaboration was a central objective of the trip, Landfried noted. “One of the things that we discussed was that many people travel to places like Ethiopia thinking ‘we need to help them,’” she said. “In reality, the local Gaia staff and other Ethiopians have a great deal of experience and ideas about how their country should develop. The design of the trip—and Project Gaia’s work, for that matter—focused on creating a dialogue and understanding that expertise and good ideas will come from both directions. The group’s willingness to learn from everyone we met along the way made this trip unique.”

View photos from the trip on Flickr by Nate Atwater '14.

Learn more about the Office of Experiential Education’s programs and expeditions, and how to participate as a student, parent, alum, faculty member, or campus employee.

Watch a video of the trip filmed by Nate Atwater '14.


Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Christine Shanaberger, associate director of communications/coordinator of presidential communications 717.337.6806

Posted: Thu, 10 Jul 2014

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