Engineering hope, promoting self-reliance in Niger
Clark alumnus designs irrigation pumps to help African farmers feed their families, jump-start local economy
by Hannah Erickson
It’s hard not to think about water when you’re in Niger. The landlocked sub-Saharan country, perennially near the bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index, has experienced three droughts in the past decade. According to the Global Health and Education Foundation, 64% of the population lacks access to clean water; those who do have access must often walk miles to fetch it in buckets.
Dirk Long ’04 had more reason than most to be thinking about Niger’s water supply one day in January 2013. An engineer by trade, he was visiting the country for the first time with his wife, a registered nurse, on a church-based volunteer trip and was in the middle of drilling a well that would provide drinking water to a rural village. Beyond the fields, Long could see the mighty Niger River, sometimes called the “Pulse of West Africa,” rolling by—close enough to see, and yet too far away to reach the villagers’ parched fields. He watched farmers carrying water from the river to their crops in buckets and gasoline cans, amazed they were able to grow anything under such adverse conditions.
“I saw the river going by and realized that the water was moving pretty fast,” Long recalls. “I remember thinking the energy in that water could probably be captured in some way.”
The wheels in Long’s mind were turning—literally. He began playing with the concept of a wheel-based irrigation pump powered by the river’s own current. It was a design that went back more than 3,000 years to the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Archimedes. However, Long was using modern techniques and materials to make it not just more efficient, but also economical and easily reproducible in an impoverished country like Niger. Long didn’t want to help just one farmer: He dreamed of deploying these pumps all along the river.
Long’s dream became a reality. Teaming up with two friends, he temporarily launched a nonprofit called Current Pumps with the intent to deliver its first 20 pumps to farmers in Niger in fall 2014. They created a partnership with the Colorado School of Mines to develop a prototype made out of inexpensive materials readily found in Niger. Editor’s note: the nonprofit dissolved April 8, 2014.
“Long-term, I want to bring these into an area and have people build and sell them on their own, thus helping the farmers and supporting the small-business economy,” said Long. “Eventually we hope these pumps can be used in any developing country—not just Niger.”
In many ways, Current Pumps is a logical result of Long’s childhood and education. He was raised in the mountains of Skamania County, in a house that was off the grid—without electricity or water.
“I grew up tinkering with things,” he said. “I always had an interest in renewable energy, the aerospace industry and international development, which are largely incongruent interests most of the time.”
That interest continued to develop when he enrolled in Clark College’s Running Start program, which allows high school students to attend college and earn college credit while enrolled in high school. He was 15 at the time; his mother had homeschooled him and his two brothers and sister. To make things easier, she used the same curriculum for all of the children. When Dirk’s older brother, Jake, enrolled at Clark, Dirk and his 14-year-old brother, Simon, and later his sister Jena enrolled as well.
“Dirk was tenacious when it came to solving a physics problem and would critically analyze it and marshal resources—including his instructor—until the job was done,” recalls physics professor Dick Shamrell, who taught all three Long brothers. “I came to respect him for his exceptional maturity and rock-solid integrity.”
Dirk Long credits his time at Clark with both fostering his love of engineering and easing his transition from the intimacy of homeschooling to the rigors and size of four-year universities. “I really learned the format of going to a ‘normal school’ at Clark,” he said. “And I was able to get a lot of classes done at Clark, so I was quite a ways ahead when I got to a four-year university. The ability to transfer in credits was really beneficial.”
All of the Long children are accomplished professionals. Jake, who lives in North Carolina, works in the biotech industry as an agriculture and business consultant. Simon is an Air Force fighter and instructor pilot stationed in Arizona. Jena graduated with an Associate of Arts degree from Clark in 2008, and then received a bachelor’s in geology from Miami University in Ohio and a master’s in economic geology from the Colorado School of Mines. As a professional geologist, Jena joined her brother in Niger in January 2014 during his second trip to help with water drilling and geologic mapping of the water table.
Dirk’s educational path is similar to his sister’s. He received his Associate of Arts degree from Clark, and then earned two bachelor’s degrees; engineering physics and mechanical engineering at Miami University in Ohio. He followed that with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. In 2014, he lived in Colorado, where he worked as a project engineer for ABSL Space Products, a company specializing in creating batteries used in aerospace applications.
Long expects to continue working in the the high-tech field; he knows Current Pumps will likely remain a volunteer activity. He looks forward other trips to Niger to again watch the mighty Niger River course by. And, thanks to the pumps he designed, the water flows into fields that will bring new bounty to some of the most impoverished people in the world.
Hannah Erickson is a communications specialist in Clark College’s Communications & Marketing Department.
Editor’s note: The story was updated on 9/26/19