Annual Review 2015/16

Looking beyond borders: student initiatives help those most in need

Undergraduate innovation is helping refugees in Greece, and bringing comfort and confidence to women in Namibia


Edinburgh students have earned a reputation for achieving extraordinary things, both in their academic studies and in their pursuits outside the classroom. In 2015/16 we’ve witnessed this trend continue unabated, with students from a wide range of disciplines committing their time and expertise towards improving the lives of those less fortunate than themselves.    

A safer source of electricity

Second-year environmental sciences students Alexandros Angelopoulos and Sam Kellerhals experienced first-hand the refugee crisis in Alex’s native Greece. In addition to observing the poor facilities in some refugee camps they also discovered that a major demand for off-grid electricity existed. 

“Our idea started while we were on Samos Island,” explains Alex. “I was volunteering there and some young guys asked me if they could use my phone to contact their families because they couldn’t find a spot in the camp to charge their own phones.”

Without access to a working mobile handset – something many of us take for granted - those refugees were unable to call worried relatives or friends, who remained in home countries, nor to make contact with friends and family in the new, host country. Already in dire situations this inability to communicate with loved ones created understandable yet desperate actions. “We could see electricity poles getting hacked,” says Alex. “People were opening the poles and trying to make connections with the wiring. They were running the risk of getting electrocuted.”

Alex and Sam saw a way to address and meet this need, by creating solar-powered mobile phone charging units. 

“Our initiative – Project Elpis – is named after the Greek goddess of hope,” explains Sam. “It is the first step in creating an innovative solution that addresses a real problem.”

The devices provide electricity for 120 people a day, 12 phones an hour and 3,600 phones a month. “We’re planning to upgrade all our solar hubs in Greece,” says Sam. “We want to work with colleagues across the University to incorporate a digital library, educational tools and information into the device. Refugees would then be able to access and download this content free of charge.” 

Supported by the University’s Global Academies and the Clinton Global Initiative, Alex and Sam believe that free electricity and educational services need to be provided to those who are most in need. They hope to gain more funding to provide additional devices for some of the 850,000 refugees who have arrived in Greece in the past year.  

“Elpis can’t change the course of the crisis,” reflects Sam. “But it may be able to alleviate some suffering by giving people the ability to regain access to their phone.”

Helping women understand menstruation in rural Africa

Liita Iyaloo Cairney standing on a beach
Dr Liita Iyaloo Cairney

Namibian-born Liita Iyaloo Cairney recently completed her PhD in global health policy at Edinburgh. Keenly aware of the lack of hygiene products available to women with little or no income in her own country, she put her skills and knowledge to use to help them.  

Liita has developed a product called Koree, an externally worn and reusable menstrual hygiene device for those who are unable to afford existing hygiene products or who have restricted access to such items. Liita also created a website and a 12-year-old character called Koree, who provides girls with tips on how to take care of their bodies. 

“A lot of the fear for young girls comes from a lack of knowledge,” says Liita. “If you educate girls about menstruation as a whole then I believe this allows them to better engage with their own bodies. Many women who live in village areas in Africa don’t have easily disposable income on a monthly basis or are facing so many other issues that buying pads is the least of their concerns. I’ve got some really good feedback from young girls in Namibia. They especially liked the idea of the little black character Koree, because they are not used to seeing themselves portrayed in a way in which they can relate.”

The University really encourages students to use their knowledge and understanding of the world to make an impact on other people’s lives and I think that’s awesome.

Dr Liita Iyaloo Cairney

Liita’s patent-pending product is soon to be manufactured in the UK. An essential part of Liita’s journey has been the time spent with the University’s entrepreneurial support department Launch.ed. “The University really encourages students to use their knowledge and understanding of the world to make an impact on other people’s lives and I think that’s awesome,” she says. “I’m a big believer in dispersing the knowledge we have, so that we can empower people to gain their own knowledge.” 

Lifting children's spirits with music

Another group from Edinburgh has been providing a different form of assistance. In July 2016 a team of students and staff from the Reid School of Music travelled to a refugee camp in Athens to perform for – and with – the camp’s children.

Reid School of Music Senior Lecturer Dee Isaacs led the initiative. Reflecting on the refugee crisis she believes: “It’s a hard situation for everyone – the lack of opportunities to move on from the camps creates a heavy burden on people.” 

“Our project was a drop in the ocean,” Ms Isaacs continues. “But I believe it made an impact on those children and allowed them to not think about their situation for a moment. Their days are long, the temperature is 40 degrees and there is little structure in their day. They were hyperactive and found it difficult to focus. This is where structured arts activities can help. Learning a song together is a simple achievable task that requires them to work alongside each other and build positive relationships.” 

Edinburgh has a long history of delivering a global impact around some of the world’s greatest challenges and the University has always aimed to equip future leaders with the skills and knowledge required for the challenges ahead. Perhaps there is an innate sense of responsibility that comes with the University of Edinburgh maintaining a global outlook and placing the practical and humanitarian application of knowledge at its forefront. Ms Isaacs comments: “There are tragedies for which we have no solutions yet, so whatever can be done, even if it only changes a child’s frame of mind for a few hours, is worth it.


Photo © Tricia Malley Ross Gillespie