Sunday, February 3, 2008

A conversation with Physicist Dr. Robert Van Buskirk

Dr. Robert Van Buskirk

Issayas Tesfamariam: Can you tell our readers about yourself?

Robert Van Buskirk: I grew up as a politically minded physics student back in the 1980's.
In the 1980’s, my work in anti-nuclear and Latin American solidarity movements, taught me that for a physicist with morals, a practice of increasing social and environmental value is likely more important than my purely theoretical physics calculations.

Since then, I searched for the places and people with the best social and environmental value production. The result is that I have concluded that projects organized in rural Africa can produce more than 1000 times the human, social and environmental value per dollar spent than projects in the U.S. or other parts of the developed world.

So I spend my volunteer time, energy and enthusiasm trying to figure out how to make such projects a reality and to replicate the best project models to hundreds, thousands, or even
hundreds of thousands of villages in rural Africa.

Issayas: How were you first introduced to Eritrea?

Robert: From 1984 through 1991 I was a graduate student in Physics. At that time I worked in solidarity with the Sandinista liberation of Nicaragua while the U.S. government was destabilizing that country. We formed a solidarity group that sent people to teach in the the Universities and tried to promote science education and research in the people's interest.

After I graduated, I got a job with a consulting company owned by Woldetsion Mesghinna, and decided that I would go to Eritrea and see if I could apply some of the lessons we learned about post-liberation science and technology development in Nicaragua to the Eritrean experience.

Issayas: What are the projects you are involved in?

Robert: I have been working with Eritrea for almost 15 years, since 1993. I first taught at the University of Asmara for about two years and then worked with the Eritrean Energy Research
and Training Center for two years. My research has focused on energy and environment.

Since then I have been based mostly in the U.S. but I visit Eritrea about 2-3 times per year.

One of my side projects in Eritrea was helping set up the country's email system which operated
from 1995 to 2000. That effort is described at:

I have helped a little bit with wind energy development which is currently resulting in the installation of about three 250 kW wind turbines in Assab. This is described at:

Wind-swept acacia tree at Rahayta, 60 kilometers southeast of Aseb

with technical details and reports provided at:

More recently I have worked doing studies in support of Debesai Ghebrehiwot's work with the improved (Adhanet) mogogo. Again the research work is described at:

And now I and some Eritrean colleagues are creating a new development credit financing scheme that we hope to use to fund improved stove, solar lighting, reforestation and other progressive development projects in Eritrea and throughout Africa. In fact this year, we are replicating
some of the lessons we learned in Eritrea to Senegal, Ghana, and Zanzibar.

You can see the beginnings of this work at:

And by doing a youtube search, you can see a whole set of video clips from village meetings and discussions what have had regarding our new combined solar lighting and improved stove projects in Eritrea. The videos are pretty unedited, and a bit disorganized, but you can see them at:

We have distributed 40 solar lighting systems as an incentive for villages to build improved stoves in about 20 villages in rural Eritrea over the last year and a half. The incentive worked!
hundreds of improved stoves have been built in response.

In the last few weeks the most recent shipment of 100 solar lighting systems finally arrived to Eritrea (and is now being cleared through customs).

When I was in Eritrea in November, I was able to check up on the projects and nearly 1000 villagers in these project villages have now built the stoves. Our goal now is to get at least another 200 to 300 solar lighting systems to these villages over the next six months. If we can accomplish that task, then we can start branching out to organize similar projects in the next 20, 50, or 100 villages over the next several years.

Using solar lights to help motivate improved stoves helps to accelerate and expand the main stove dissemination project which has distributed more than 40,000 improved stoves through a large variety of government agencies and organizations since 1999.

The main improved stove program is disseminating more than 10,000 new stoves each year. But the goal is to get up to 20,000 to 30,000 improved stoves each year. Then the whole country can be covered in about a decade.

If we can get the rate of distribution of solar lighting systems up to the same level as the stoves, then in one to two decades, everyone in Eritrea can have access to clean, safe energy, no
matter how remote their village is. And that would be a very beautiful thing to see.

Issayas: Robert, thank you for your time.

Robert: You are welcome.

(pictures courtesy of Dr. Robert Von Buskirk)