MY JOB: I specialise in creating original and sustainable solutions

Friday August 31 2018

Michael Githinji is a humanitarian aid worker with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International. PHOTO| COURTESY

Michael Githinji is a humanitarian aid worker with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International. PHOTO| COURTESY 


I'm not your regular humanitarian aid worker. I’ve always seen myself as a creator.

When I was younger, I would dismantle toys and electronics to see how their design could be improved much to the dismay of my parents.

I am part of the Displacement Unit, a field team charged with creating solutions to solve problems on the ground at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) also known in English as Doctors Without Borders. We work as a team and often take unusual approaches to solving problems that are new to a lot of people.

When I first arrived at Pulka Internally Displaced People’s camp in Nigeria, I wasn´t sure what I would find. Of course I was well briefed, but that can never really make one understand people’s lifestyles, behaviour and challenges.

I met some of the people who had been attacked, and each of their stories was awful. For a bundle of firewood to cook their daily meal, they were forced to take their lives into their hands.


Inspired by innovations in Kenya, I concluded that we should look at alternative fuel sources in the camp, which were renewable and which could fit in their almost nil budget.

When scoping out the process, the first thing is to meet the local artisans and see what sort of resources exist. From there, one can start to prototype different solutions.

Pulka IDP camp in Nigeria. PHOTO| MICHAEL GITHINJI

Pulka IDP camp in Nigeria. PHOTO| MICHAEL GITHINJI

As we walked around the camp, I could see waste of different sorts – maize cobs, sorghum stems, groundnut shells – but what seemed most promising was sugarcane peel.

Sugarcane peel is easily available in the camp as some of the residents are farmers, who are regularly escorted by the military to harvest their sugarcane crop.

Small briquettes could be made by cutting the peel into smaller chunks, wetting it, pressing it and leaving it to dry. This seemed like the best option.

We worked out that six of these prototype briquettes could keep a fire going for an hour, which is plenty of time to cook the daily meal.


With the help of local artisans and welders, we looked around at what local metal could be used to make one of these presses, and finally we came up with a design that could easily be reproduced. It’s important that they started to see this as theirs as well.

I got a small taste of the terror that people deal with regularly, when a gun battle broke out in the camp. While it didn´t last long, it made me realise how volatile the situation is.

The next step was to get the support of the local elders. These are the people who will act as advocates.

Over the two weeks, I made several demonstrations to these men. Without their buy-in there would be no approval and the community would not follow.


MSF isn’t giving away the press or the finished briquettes, as this is intended to be a project that is sustainable in the long-term, even without MSF’s input.

They will be manufactured by the local artisans, following the prototypes we designed together. I discussed with the community elders about how they could be affordable, and they suggested households could come together and purchase the press jointly.

It may cost between Sh2000 and Sh3000, after all the manpower that is put in. But the price can and will come down.

It isn’t enough just to introduce the idea and walk away. Over the next few months, we are monitoring how the community takes up the idea and we adapt the strategy if, and when necessary. That work takes a lot of dedication from all our field team.

I’ve been doing this for years – first in Kenya, my home, but also in Sudan and South Sudan. I would say that I specialise in looking for original, locally sustainable solutions, with local inputs, to solve a problem.

At times I also have to be a bit of an economist and a salesman.

The ideas we come up with together must be affordable to the community I work with, and I have to support them in thinking about how to make the take-up of the solutions effective.

It’s no good jumping out of a plane with a solution you dreamt up in a well-equipped workshop, assuming you know what is best.

It’s interesting how the innovation process sometimes uncovers more issues that need to be solved. Over this trip, I also saw people using energy-inefficient stoves to cook their food.

If we can reduce the consumption of fuel, we can reduce the need for people to leave the camp during difficult times.

While the solution I developed in Pulka camp is not going to eliminate the need to gather fuel outside the camp, we do hope that it will reduce the number of assaulted people who come to our hospitals after being attacked while out gathering firewood.