Leveraging Engineering Expertise at an Agriculture-Processing Plant in Nigeria

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Leveraging Engineering Expertise at an Agriculture-Processing Plant in Nigeria

Stanford Seed intern and electrical engineer Amal El-Ghazaly lends her talents to the company’s most immediate needs and learns a real-life lesson.
May 15, 2016
Amal, seen here with some of her Psaltry colleagues, stand next to the electrical panel which Amal built from scratch.

Amal traveled to Africa, excited to help the owner of an agricultural processing plant increase efficiency and production.

When conditions on the ground forced changes to the project, she turned her talents to the company’s most immediate needs and received a real-life lesson in the challenges facing entrepreneurs in developing economies.

Amal first learned about the Seed program as she was finishing her doctorate.

“There was a lot I was hoping for,” she recalled. “The end of a PhD is a critical time in defining career goals and your future. How do I want to define myself? How do I want to brand myself going into the job market, whether that’s industry or academia?”

As a dual Egyptian/American citizen, her concern over making her contribution took on special significance.

“What I wanted most of all was to see how my engineering skills fit into this world on the African continent, and what impact can I actually have there,” she said.

Amal applied to become a 2016 Seed intern, joining the ranks of Stanford students selected to undertake projects at companies participating in the Seed Transformation Program. The program, which is housed under Stanford Graduate School of Business, offers high-potential leaders based in developing economies a chance to assess their company’s vision, redefine strategies, and make changes toward exponential growth that will create new jobs in their region. Stanford Seed East Africa, based in Kenya, and Stanford Seed West Africa, based in Ghana, eventually will be expanded to include Seed programs in developing economies throughout the world.

What I wanted most of all was to see how my engineering skills fit into this world on the African continent, and what impact can I actually have there...
Amal El-Ghazaly

Amal was matched with Psaltry International, an agricultural business with 200 employees that focuses on both farm development and the production of food-grade starch from cassava, a plant with an edible root that is a major food staple in the region. Amal arrived at Seed’s Ghana office in June, received an orientation, and was soon escorted to Lagos, Nigeria, by a Seed coordinator. There, she was met by Psaltry CEO Yemisi Iranloye, who accompanied her on the three-hour trip to Psaltry’s rural site. Iranloye, a Christian, was eager to have the input of a Stanford intern — and was intrigued by the young Muslim engineer who had expressed an interest in her company.

“I wanted new ideas; I wanted somebody to come and look at the business and tell me, ‘This particular thing you’re doing is not good; why don’t you do it this way?’” Iranloye said. “I wanted to be corrected. I wanted her. I wanted this lady who just seemed to want me.”

Amal’s plan — to identify production problems and solve them — hit roadblocks almost immediately.

Spotty internet service made online research painfully slow. Access to materials was difficult, and Amal found herself dependent on others to complete tasks she was accustomed to handling herself. Conveniences taken for granted in the U.S. were often nonexistent.

“Online banking doesn’t always work,” she said. “We had to drive 30 kilometers to the nearest town to come out with huge bags of cash. We’d be driving back terrified, but that’s what you have to do when you can’t transfer money electronically to farmers.”

She soon realized many of the projects she’d anticipated working on had either been implemented or were prohibitively expensive. She decided to focus on learning every aspect of the company’s production line, eventually making suggestions for improved efficiency based on international standards of cassava processing — something the management team had never explored.

“They had never thought of researching online what others do and how we can match that,” she said. “When they get caught up in the daily grind, with a motor that breaks or issues that come up every day, they don’t have time to think of the bigger picture. So that was the luxury of having me there — the engineer who could now think more abstractly.”

Amal immediately saw a need for workplace sensors and began building them from scratch, cobbling units together from materials on hand.

Amal became much loved by her fellow Psaltry workers.

“They monitor the temperature of the starch to make sure it doesn’t overheat, which can ruin the factory and potentially cause an explosion,” she said. “Others were to warn of water exposure near the electric motors, which can cause the factory to shut down.”

She also began researching industry advancements and new equipment, helped make purchases, and began working with Psaltry’s production, utility, administrative, accounting, and agricultural teams. She taught coworkers about data analytics using Excel, demonstrated PowerPoint presentations, and taught employees how to make international purchases online.

In turn, Amal was taught power electronics by coworkers, learned the realities of operating a business in a developing economy, and found inspiration in CEO Iranloye, who became both a friend and mentor.

“Can you imagine the strength of a woman in the developing world, which usually is male-focused, who put together a company on her own, applied for local funding, and is leading a team of mostly men and they all respect her?” she said. “It was really powerful to work with her and learn from her.”

Iranloye said she’s grateful for the improvements Amal brought to Psaltry, including the sensors she created, which have drastically reduced production line errors that used to mean frequent 24-hour shutdowns of the line for cleaning. In addition to savings in time, energy, and money, Amal contributed to Psaltry in less tangible ways, she said.

“It’s one of the most tremendous things to have happen to us as a company,” Iranloye said. “She’s been able to help my colleagues, my employees, to see that you can be very, very up there — she has a PhD in electrical engineering — and yet be as humble as you can be. She was able to display excellence. She added a lot of value to us.”

Amal is now doing postdoctoral research and has an expanded vision for her future, which may include continuing research on industrial sensors.

“I’m now thinking, ‘How can I make research here be useful on the continent?’ I want my work here to be related to what is needed there,” she said.

The Seed internship program helped her realize her own potential, and will do the same for future interns, she said.

“Be open to this opportunity to change your life and your perspective on things,” Amal said. “No matter where I go, I think I can make an impact or contribute in some way.”

Enjoy Amal El-Ghazaly’s story? Read about other Seed Interns.

Check out photos from the Seed Intern’s Stanford Business Instagram Takeover.

Interested in becoming a Stanford Seed Intern? Learn how to apply.

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