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GM know-how helps Africans

Tech Center group finds solution for villagers to grind corn



Detroit automotive know-how and ingenuity are helping feed people half a world away, growing from a General Motors executive's desire to teach his children the importance of charity.

Terry Woychowski, one of GM's top engineers, started a foundation through which his children could support good works and also sponsored an African child through an aid program. When he found out that child was failing school, he found out why the boy was missing a lot of school.

The child, whose father died of AIDS, was gone three days at a time to get the family's corn ground because there was no powered mill at his village. So Woychowski formed a team to help create a bicycle-powered grinder that can be made with local materials and run by a 10-year-old. A half-dozen now are in use in Africa, and plans are being drawn up to expand the program.

Now Woychowski's group -- his children and students from Michigan Tech, where he is on the engineering advisory board -- is working on a small motor to provide power in places like Haiti, where electricity is still scarce after the earthquake this year.

In a conference room at General Motors' Warren Technical Center, Terry Woychowski laid out the problem.

Solomoni Mafuta, a 10-year-old boy from the village of Senzani in Malawi, had just failed the second grade.

"No kid that I'm going to sponsor is going to flunk the second grade. I want this kid to be a leader. I want him to be a man of influence in his village, and he can't do that by flunking the second grade," Woychowski recalled in a recent interview.

Woychowski, vice president of global vehicle program management at GM, wanted solutions from a group of young engineers who had impressed him with their potential. They met regularly over lunch for sessions taught by Woychowski on leadership.

On that day about two years ago, the group was supposed to discuss President Theodore Roosevelt's leadership style. But Woychowski had another idea.

He introduced them to Solomoni through photos, the child's drawings, which included a car, and a report card.

How do we help?

That's where the idea to aid villagers in Africa with one of life's daily challenges -- grinding corn -- began.

Eventually the group learned that Solomoni was missing school because he had to walk several days to get his family's corn ground by a diesel-powered mill to make nshima, a cornmeal that's a staple of diets in parts of Africa.

Families, too poor to own their own mills, must often travel to pay to use a mill or do it by hand.

"They spend most of their time and a lot of their money grinding corn to make nshima, which is their main meal. It looks like mashed potatoes, but it's made from corn," said Woychowski's oldest daughter, Jamie.

The attention Woychowski paid to the child apparently helped over the following year. Solomoni's grades improved, with his last report card saying he's now ranked 16th out of nearly 100 students.

But the bigger issue -- the need to grind corn -- remained for many. Woychowski wanted to come up with a solution for the root issue.

Woychowski turned to his family, volunteers at GM and students at Michigan Technological University, where he sits on the advisory board of the College of Engineering, to design a human-powered hammer mill to grind grain.

It's not surprising for Woychowski, who talks passionately about engineering and the importance of leadership. Like many at GM, his connections to the automaker stretch back to childhood.

His father worked as a technician at GM's Milford Proving Grounds, and Woychowski dreamed of following in his footsteps.

But his father insisted that Woychowski go to college instead, telling the son that he could one day be the father's boss.

In fact, after graduation, Woychowski ended up with a job at the proving grounds and for a few weeks, was his father's boss.

As a father himself, Woychowski hoped to instill a charitable spirit in his children.

He created a family foundation for projects to help people, making Jamie, now 26, executive director.

Inspired by the project, she decided to quit her retail job in Toronto to pursue a master's of business administration at Lawrence Tech, with dreams of working at a nonprofit someday.

"It's calling me," she said of the hammer mill project.

The human-powered mill would be the first big project for the family.

Woychowski insisted that the machine could be made from local materials and that it could be operated by a child.

"A lot of guys have made machines to help ... but they come to find out that the parts they're made of are much more valuable than the function they are serving. So they quickly get pilfered and some of the parts would be found as being worn as jewelry," Woychowski said.

There's a mill, there's a way

The engineering students found a solution in a mill powered by an old bicycle.

Jamie Woychowski took the mill design to Zambia last summer, where it was well received.

"We'd get there and they'd be singing and dancing, so excited to see us," she said.

Since launching the mills last summer, the group has learned some important lessons about pulley ratios, bearing designs and material strengths that will allow design improvements. The Woychowskis figure the mills are already helping hundreds of people.

The next step is to roll out more of the hammer mills to additional villages, Woychowski said. He hopes to get to the point where people can sponsor a hammer mill for a village for perhaps about $100.

The family is also working with students at Michigan Tech to take the project further by exploring the use of a small engine that could power a mill. The group will work to adapt the engine to operate the hammer mill and to run on indigenous fuel.

"It's an old technology ... but it is a very simple engine; there are no electronics to speak of. It starts with a hand crank," said Robert Warrington, a mechanical engineering professor at Michigan Tech who is working with the students.

The students are heading to Ghana in July to test the idea, with plans to return in the fall to school to perfect it. Woychowski hopes that the engine can be used in Haiti and other places were infrastructure is damaged or nonexistent.

While happy to have helped in Africa, Woychowski seems proudest of the changes he's seen in his own children and their desire to help.

"My primary objective is my children; if I can help them make this rock a better place, I'm in," Woychowski said.



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