My GiveLight Journey

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A 10,000 mile journey to Takengon, Indonesia

After a grueling journey from Boston that involved over three days of flights with four layovers and a long overnight bus ride, I found myself in the beautiful town of Takengon located in the Northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia in December, 2017. Nestled among towering mountains and located on the shores of the beautiful lake Laut Tawar, Takengon offers an ideal climate for growing coffee. The well known “Sumatra coffee” that all true coffee connoisseurs are familiar with is primarily grown here. A cool, temperature reprieve from the otherwise sweltering weather of Indonesia, Takengon was the venue for my volunteer experience with the GiveLight Foundation, supported by the Public Service Center MIT

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The beautiful town of Takengon, on the shores of the scenic Lake Laut Tawar

Just outside the city center is a beautiful home called Noordeen, established by the GiveLight Foundation one year after the 2004 Asian Tsunami, which left behind many orphaned children. The name Noordeen was a tribute to the Founder, Dian Alyan’s great grandfather who was a successful merchant, a warrior in the Independence movement from Dutch colonization and a true, generous Muslim.  His life inspired Dian to found GiveLight, which she hopes to reflect the spirit of Noordeen (meaning “the light of religion”). Since its inception, the home has cared for over 300 orphans, and presently supports 40 children.

GiveLight homes are primarily supported by donations from generous individuals. As such, it is imperative to find ways to minimize operating costs as well as maximize their sources of revenue in order to be sustainable, and thereby efficiently target their funding directly towards orphan welfare programs. Over the course of my three weeks at the Noordeen Home, I was interested in evaluating if the home can become close-to-energy independent in terms of primarily cooking gas requirements.

In this endeavor, one of my first goals was to set up a simple biodigester which would provide a regular and reliable source of cooking gas. As soon as I arrived, I worked with the staff to procure materials and equipment to build my biodigester. We bought a cheap oil drum and cleaned it up. I also engaged the children in the process, so it would be a scientific learning experience for them.

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Reviewing our biodigester installation plan and selecting an appropriate sized oil drum

The objective of this project was to fill the drum with compostable wastes and cow manure and let it sit in a sealed environment to generate biogas. Once generated, the gas would be stored in a tube that could then be subsequently used in the kitchen as a source of cooking gas.

I was able to buy a few pipes and valves in the US before leaving. To my delight, they fit perfectly in the oil drum without the need for any welding or adjustments!

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Installing pipes and valves on the drums

Filling the Biodigester

In the subsequent week, we continued our quest to build a functioning biodigester. Biodigesters are an extremely sustainable way to produce a reliable supply of clean cooking gas as well as high quality fertilizer, all for little-to-no-monthly-costs. An important component of the biodigester is cow manure which contains valuable methanogen bacteria that break down organic wastes in an anaerobic environment and generate gas. So, as the next step in our biodigester production, we decided to go hunting for cow manure in Takengon. Luckily, we found a cow farm close by  and scooped up a few buckets of fresh poop!

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A friendly cow producing some valuable poop!

We gathered some wastes from the kitchen and literally any organic products we could find. I encouraged the kids to keep track of their waste to be added periodically to the biodigester. In order to make the digestion process a bit more efficient we cut up plant waste into smaller pieces.

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Collecting and cutting up organic waste

We then mixed them all together with some water and funneled it down our biodigester. The staff and kids really seemed to enjoy the process despite the slightly disagreeable odors involved!

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Diluting cow manure with water and pouring down a funnel in our biodigester. Not as disgusting as you may think!

Sustainable Farming

The biodigester was then completely sealed up with all valves shut closed. In the meantime, I decided to get some sustainable gardening initiatives going in a small plot of fertile land owned by the orphan home staff. We dug up the soil and prepared vegetable beds, and added horse manure as fertilizer. We purchased seeds for spinach, cucumber, chillies and kangkung (a local nutritious green leafy vegetable) and planted them together. I encouraged all children to maintain their own vegetable bed space and plant whichever plants they were interested in growing and cultivating.

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Preparing a fertile vegetable bed together

Aside from these projects, I have had the priceless experience of spending time teaching and mentoring these children. Every day we spent a few hours together learning English, studying science and math, playing games, doing origami and so much more. We also recited surahs from the Holy Quran together and I shared beautiful stories from the hadith (saying of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) and supplications to cope with stress and anxiety.

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Fireworks on New Year’s Eve! Spelling out the name of our home “Noordeen”

Ending the Project on a Happy Note

Typically, biodigesters take about a month to fully generate biogas. And even then, the first batch of gas must always be fully purged because it contains air that can create a dangerous explosive mixture if burned right away. So about a couple of weeks after we sealed up the biodigester, we opened the main valve with a tube leading to a jar of water and voila! We saw bubbles!

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All smiles as the biodigestion worked successfully!

This was particularly a huge relief given the erratic cold and rainy weather we had over the couple of weeks during my project! Given that cold weather significantly slows down biogas generation, I was delighted to demonstrate proof-of-concept as well as ensure there were no leaks in the system.

We then fully purged this batch of gas. It took about three minutes to fully purge the gas and then we closed all the valves. I purged the gas one final time on my last day and instructed the staff to let a fresh batch of biogas generate for a month. They will then test it with a specially designed biogas stove. Below is a picture showing my envisioned setup for the biodigester for a sustainable, long term operation.

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Biodigester with a stove and a storage tube for long term application

Every time a batch of biogas is generated, the black bicycle tube on the left in the image will be first filled up to store the gas (multiple tubes can be used as necessary to store the gas). Then, the gas can be used to run a stove either from the main valve or connected to one of the storage tubes as necessary.

Three full weeks after we planted our vegetable seeds, plants sprouted out! Look at the children delightedly checking out their own vegetable patches and the products of their hard work!

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Spinach patch growing quite well!

Finally, I would like to end by a reflecting on the impact I left on this community. On my last day, the staff and children put up a very touching farewell ceremony for me and thanked me for spending time with their community. They made a wonderful thank-you poster for me and put it up in their central hall! It says the following words: “Thank you very much Brother, we really felt a sincere kindness for you taking care and giving valuable knowledge, may your goodness get the best reward from Allah”. Aww!

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Aww! What a nice token of appreciation from the children and staff!

I was also delighted to see the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) impact I left. In my last week, I taught the children about water-repelling materials (“hydrophobic”) and demonstrated some cool nano-engineered materials I had brought over from MIT.

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Studying about hydrophobic materials using nanoengineered materials I brought from MIT!

The next day after my lecture, a few students went into the backyard and plucked a leaf and delightedly showed me how hydrophobic it was. They then went online and researched more about the leaf and put together a presentation to my delight. I could really see that they grasped the concepts and were curious about science!

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“Brother Sami! Look! This leaf is hydrophonic… oops…hydrophobic!” – Zainuddin

All in all, my experience at the Noordeen home was absolutely incredible and I thank everyone, especially the staff at the PSC center at MIT and members of the GiveLight foundation who made it happen!