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From school project to world health aid

(Photo: WSU students with Malawi children.)

Young people often pursue medicine for humanitarian reasons. But recent WSU graduate Travis Meyer, newly accepted to medical school might delay his medical training in order to help others.

Meyer is one of four May 2006 graduates who developed a plan to establish a nonprofit corporation to build a treadle-pump manufacturing plant in Malawi, in southeast Africa. The treadle pump is a human-powered water pump that looks similar to a Stairmaster. Malawi is a water-rich country that has a critical dry season, and farmers who have a treadle pump for irrigation have a great advantage not only supplying food for their families but also earning a living.

The pumps in use in Malawi are manufactured in India and Tanzania and are made entirely of steel, which is imported with high tariffs. At a price of about $100 each, they cost about half the annual income of the average Malawian.

(WSU’s light-weight, portable pump)

The WSU students — Travis Meyer (Bioengineering), Kyle Kraemer (Bioengineering), Dan Good (Mechanical Engineering), and Jeff Evans (Entrepreneurship) — have worked to develop a pump that can be made locally, is lightweight, portable and costs less. They decided to build much of their pump out of PVC, which is commonly available in Malawi, to support local manufacturing and sustainable operation. The Malawian government and a local non-government organization are supportive of this vision and enthusiastic about the possibility.

In March, these four engineering and entrepreneurship students and their faculty advisers traveled to Malawi to test their new product. At long distances, their prototype pumped nearly as much water as did steel models. At shorter distances, distances that farmers typically use, the WSU model bested the competition.

(Pump provides flow of water for people and crops)

Replacement parts for treadle pumps manufactured in India are not readily available in Malawi. Replacement parts for the WSU version are available. In fact, while in Malawi, the students built a second prototype from locally available materials.
The team is now preparing for the semifinal round of a business plan competition at the University of Washington. Sixteen teams, from the original field of 61, will compete to advance to the final four. The original team worked with Peter Wyeth and Trent Bunderson, of International Programs, and faculty advisers Denny Davis (engineering) and Jerman Rose (entrepreneurship).

Grant funding supporting the construction and in-country testing of the prototype has been exhausted. The students are working to raise $100,000 necessary for redesigning the pump for manufacturing and mass production, for plant construction, for hiring and training the sales staff, and for travel to and from Malawi.

Benefits envisioned from this successful project will include: a profitable business for Malawians, increased crop yields that provide food and income for family needs, and personal satisfaction of WSU students who made a lasting difference in people’s lives. 

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