Engineering professor builds a cleaner future

Ernest Yanful is confident it can change the world.

“In this day and age, there are still countries in Africa – today – that still use pit latrines,” said the Civil and Environmental Engineering professor. “Do you believe this? This is a huge issue.”

But with the recent opening of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) Institute of Sanitation and Waste Management in Ghana, in which Yanful played a major role in getting off the ground, things may be about to change.

The idea began with a Canadian International Development Agency-funded conference in Ghana in 2007, attended by two Western interns on a four-month internship placement at Zoomlion Ghana Limited, the largest waste management in Ghana. Interest in environmental waste management education in Africa grew quickly from there.

In 2009, Western partnered with Zoomlion to organize a waste management workshop for 70 participants in Ghana; Yanful and fellow Engineering professor Shahzad Barghi led the workshop.

Since, Zoomlion continues to host, on average, three Western Engineering interns every year. In return, Western has sponsored and hosted five students from KNUST and two from University of Mines and Technology in Ghana.

The idea of the creating a permanent educational institute, just the second of its kind in all of Africa, was pushed heavily by Zoomlion, KNUST, Egerton University, the University of Nairobi, Kenya Wildlife Services and Nesvax Innovations.

Yanful spent considerable amount of time, including the majority of his recent year-long sabbatical, establishing the institute. He helped design and construct its laboratories, recruit administrative staff – including a registrar and director of research, innovation and development – and developed an organizational structure for the next 10 years.

Currently, the Institute of Sanitation and Waste Management facility consists of a seven-storey classroom, conference, office and laboratory block and a five-storey administrative building.

Now, Yanful, a member of Western’s Africa Institute, hopes to deepen Western’s commitment to the institute. And he has big ideas as to how to do it.

Yanful proposes Western get involved in recruiting faculty, as well as developing and launching academic and professional programs. A number of Western faculty, staff and students have travelled to Ghana and Kenya to teach short courses, present keynote lectures at international conferences, promote Western’s engineering programs and serve as engineering interns in community development projects.

Western could also guide the new institute to become a research-intensive university, said Yanful, who added a partnership with KNUST would allow the institute to run accredited academic and professional programs immediately.

“Western’s international reputation and experience in assisting similar institutions globally would ensure the new institute begins on a solid foundation, thereby preserving or consolidating the investments Western has made over the last six years,” Yanful said.

Yanful is thrilled with how far things have come in the last six years. And he’s already looking down the road.

Western has had long-standing relationships with institutions in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and other countries in east and south-central Africa through the work of faculty members in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Arts and Humanities and Education as well as the departments of Geography, Biology and Civil and Environmental Engineering.

In the areas of water, sanitation and waste management, Yanful has taught short courses in Nairobi, while professors Irena Creed (Biology), Charlie Trick (Biology) and Clare Robinson (Engineering) have conducted field research on water quality management in the Lake Naivasha area of Kenya.

Yanful proposes Western consolidate its efforts in Africa into two regional centres of excellence – one in sanitation and waste management, located in Ghana, and one in water and health, based in either in Kenya or Rwanda.

“Students will be designing new and environmentally friendly and biodegradable sanitation systems, creating safe drinking water, better waste water treatment.” he said. “This will change the world, and wouldn’t it be powerful if Western championed two centres of excellence in Africa. What other universities are doing this?”