After several years of volunteering for IEEE humanitarian technology projects, Samantha Mugeni Niyoyita decided she needed more than just technical skills to help underserved communities become more self-sufficient. The IEEE member from Kigali, Rwanda, participated in installing portable sinks in nearby rural markets to curb the spread of COVID-19 and provided clean water and sanitation services to people displaced by the Mount Nyiragongo volcano eruption in 2021.
Niyoyita wanted to learn how to tackle other issues such as access to quality health care, understanding different cultures, and becoming familiar with local policies. And she felt she needed to enhance her leadership and communications skills and learn how to manage projects.
Thanks to a scholarship from IEEE Smart Village, she is now getting that education through the master’s degree program in development practice from Regis University, in Denver. The program, offered virtually and in person, combines theory and hands-on training on topics such as community outreach and engagement, health care, the environment, and sustainability. It teaches leadership and other soft skills.
In addition to bringing electricity to remote communities, IEEE Smart Village offers educational and employment opportunities. To be eligible for its scholarship, the student’s thesis project must support the program’s mission.
Niyoyita, who attends classes remotely, is a process engineer at Africa Improved Foods, also in Kigali. AIF manufactures porridge from maize and other cereals and fortifies it with vitamins and minerals. She has worked there for more than four years.
“Smart Village wants to empower its members so that we can implement projects in our local community knowing what the best practices are,” she says.
She acknowledges she would not have been able to afford to attend Regis without help from IEEE.
Electronic medical records to improve care
Niyoyita is now in the second year of the degree program. Her research project is to assess the impact of digitizing the medical records of primary care clinics, known as health posts, in rural Rwanda.
“The health post records are mostly paper-based, and transitioning to electronic records would improve patient outcomes,” Niyoyita says. “This provides easy access to records and improves coordination of care.”
She plans to evaluate just how access to electronic records by health care professionals can improve patient care.
Her scholarship of US $5,045 was funded by donations to IEEE Smart Village. Since the educational program was launched in 2015, more than 30 individuals from 16 countries have participated.
“I was fortunate to receive this scholarship,” she says. “It has helped me a lot when it comes to soft skills. As an engineer, normally we tend to be very technical. Expressing ourselves and sharing our skills and expertise are the kinds of things you can only learn through a social science master’s degree.”
Many opportunities as an industrial engineer
As a youngster, Niyoyita was more interested in subjects that required her to reason and think creatively instead of memorizing information. She excelled at mathematics and physics.
“That was how I got into engineering,” she says, adding that she also was inspired by her brother, an engineer.
The degree from Regis is in addition to those Niyoyita already holds from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, known as HES-SO Valais-Wallis, in Sion, Switzerland. She earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial systems engineering in 2015 and a master’s in engineering with a concentration in mechatronics in 2017.
She chose to study industrial engineering, she says, because she finds it to be a “discipline that offers numerous pathways to various fields and career opportunities. I’m able to understand concept designs—which includes mechanical and electrical—programming, and automation. You have a wealth of career opportunities and a chance to make an impact.”
“IEEE Smart Village wants to empower its members so that we can implement projects in our local community knowing what the best practices are.”
At AIF, she analyzes the company’s processes to identify bottlenecks in the manufacturing line, and she proposes ways to fix them.
“We receive these cereals and clean and grind them,” she says. “We have a cooking section and fortify the cereals through mixing. Then we package and sell them.”
She evaluates the production flow and checks on the performance of the equipment. In addition, she provides technological support when new products are being developed.
AIF is benefiting from the training she’s receiving from the master’s degree program, she says, as she is learning to lead teams, provide innovative solutions, and collaborate with others.
A successful IEEE power conference to Rwanda
Niyoyita joined IEEE while a student at HES-SO Valais-Wallis because she needed access to its journals for her research papers. After she graduated, she continued her membership and started volunteering for IEEE Smart Village in 2019. She served as a secretary for its Africa Working Group team, which worked on humanitarian projects.
She also got involved in organizing conferences in Africa. Her first event was the 2019 PowerAfrica Conference, held in Abuja, Nigeria. It covered emerging power system technologies, applications, government policies, and regulatory frameworks. As a member of the conference’s technical program committee, she helped develop the program and reviewed article submissions. She also was a speaker on the IEEE Women in Engineering panel.
Based on that positive experience, she says, she vowed to bring the conference to Rwanda—which she did last year. As cochair, she oversaw the budget, conference logistics, and other arrangements to “ensure that local and foreign attendees had an excellent experience,” she says. More than 300 people from 43 countries attended.
Providing entrepreneurs with skills to succeed
One project that Niyoyita has put on the back burner because of her work and school commitments is providing her country’s technicians with the skills they need to become entrepreneurs.
Many recent graduates of vocational technical schools in rural Rwanda have told her they want to start their own company, she says, but she has noticed they lack the skills to do so.
“Even though they provide problem-solving products or ideas, they often lack the marketing skills and financial literacy to be able to sustain their project,” she says. “They also need to know how to pitch an idea and make a proposal so they can get funding.”
She would like to create an after-school incubation hub to provide the technicians with training, access to the Internet so they can flesh out their ideas, mentorship opportunities, and advisors who can tell them where to find financing.
“I was able to get some of the skills from the master’s degree program,” she says, “but most of them I got from my work and also from my involvement in IEEE.”
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