Zach Dunn has been on a mission to solve problems since he first set foot on the Oregon State University campus in 2008. While pursuing a degree in ecological engineering, Zach connected with a group that would forever change his life. Engineers Without Borders (EWB) introduced him to ways he could connect what he was learning in the classroom with solving real-world problems.
In Zach’s case, the problem to be solved was access to drinkable water in Lela, a tiny farming community in Kenya. The Oregon State EWB chapter has been working with the community since 2009, and beginning in 2011, Zach made multiple trips to Lela with EWB to help design and build a rain catchment system and two deep wells with hand pumps.
Zach knew the engineering degree he completed in 2012 gave him the skills to solve practical problems like the one in Lela. But he wanted a broader understanding of why poverty exists in the first place, and how to work with people, politicians and institutions to resolve it.
“We have the resources to solve poverty,” he says. “We produce enough food and can prevent deaths from diseases like malaria and diarrhea that kill 10 million children a year. It is not a technical problem but rather a political one.”
So to take on this new challenge, Zach enrolled in Oregon State’s Master of Public Policy program. It took him back to Kenya, where his master’s thesis developed into a study on weather insurance to protect farmers from droughts and the need for timely and accurate weather data. That evolved further into his current role post graduation with the Trans-African HydroMeteorological Observatory (TAHMO).
TAHMO is a proposed network of 20,000 weather stations across sub-Saharan Africa, founded and led by John Selker from Oregon State University and Nick van de Giesen from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Currently, there are fewer than 200 automatic weather stations on the entire African continent that meet the requirements of the World Meteorological Organization.
As East African Field Director for TAHMO, Zach is leading the drive to install as many as 600 automated weather stations in Kenya. He travels throughout the country establishing sites for weather stations and negotiating their placement with local officials. Zach and his team have already set up 30 automated stations in rural Kenya, which monitor all the standard weather parameters — wind speed and direction, solar radiation, barometric pressure, precipitation, temperature and relative humidity — and upload the data over a cellular network.
“Knowing the weather is critical for agriculture. This is as true in Africa as it is anywhere else,” Zach says. “Unfortunately, smallholder African farmers are often at the mercy of the weather.”
Weather stations mean increased predictability for farmers, helping them determine when to plant and which crops will fare best in a given year. That predictability makes it possible for farmers to carry weather insurance, which pays them if their crops fail due to drought. Accurate, readily available weather data can help improve food security and ultimately alleviate poverty.
With two degrees and now a career, Zach is still on a mission to solve problems.
“Solving problems means having the vision to see what needs to be done and the courage to make it happen,” he says. “I don’t have all the answers, but I also believe in my ability to have a positive impact on the world.”
He already has.