I’m sitting in the back of a pickup truck as it makes clumsy progress up the rocky road. In the front, my two companions bounce around on the front bench and the constant juddering has made an indecipherable mess of my hand-writing. It is mid-December in Rwanda - the end of the rainy season - and the hill-puckered landscape looks green and alive. This is a tiny country, around one-third of the size of Ireland, but the poor rural roads make travelling even small distances a considerable challenge. We are driving to a health centre in Northern Province where a recent lightning strike has damaged a solar energy installation, rupturing the batteries and blowing lead acid across the floor. Lightning is the most common environmental hazard in the small circle encompassing Rwanda and Eastern Congo, an area known as the lightning capital of the world. It averages more than 80 strikes per square kilometre each year – more than 20 times what one expects in Western Europe. [login type="readmore"] [caption id="attachment_2457" align="alignright" width="300"] Control panel in a Rwandan health centre. Note scorch marks above the system from when the inverter caught fire after a lightning strike[/caption] On arrival, we discover that the power has been down for some time and a health centre has been affected. In desperation, a local technician with no formal training has rewired the electrical system to bypass the damaged equipment, using old kit that had been discarded years ago. His work, while outrageously unsafe, shows astonishing resourcefulness. Despite the catastrophic failure of half its solar equipment, the health centre is still managing to get by. SOLAR ENERGY As an Irishman who attended university in Britain, I found myself in Northern Rwanda thanks to Engineers Without Borders UK. In 2012, I applied to their summer placements programme and was selected for a six-month placement with a Rwandan solar energy company, building and maintaining solar installations for houses, schools and hospitals throughout the country. Since the end of my placement, I have continued my work as a full-time member of staff. Some weeks later, an online article from my old university newspaper catches my eye. The writer is a student in the final year of a science degree, expressing the view that no graduate job exists that will allow a young recruit to begin making important decisions right out of university. [caption id="attachment_2336" align="alignright" width="300"] Solar panels in Rwanda[/caption] This complaint is common and not entirely without basis. It is often said that your first couple of years as a graduate engineer will consist of wading through company spreadsheets, poring over data of little consequence. There will be few opportunities for original design work, rare occasions to have serious influence and certainly no sincere attempts to assess the specific impact of your work on stakeholders. In fact, there are few directions in which you can turn if you really want to put your newly-acquired skills to the test. But turning to development is one of them. The reason for this is not bravado so much as an obvious discrepancy in the availability of resources between the developed and developing worlds. Standards of education in Sub-Saharan Africa are lower; so fewer people are qualified to perform technical tasks. Logistics are clunky and infrastructure is basic, so it can be a struggle to find decent materials. These limitations heighten the need for ingenuity, stripping bare your skill as a problem solver. More importantly, they push you above your station, as scarcity is wont to do. Conditions forced the technician in Northern Province to come up with something to keep his health centre going. Likewise, on my visit I must fill the role of expert, when in European terms I am a rookie. [caption id="attachment_2346" align="alignright" width="300"] White was working on solar installation projects[/caption] The infrastructure that guides the field of modern engineering in the developed world is its greatest strength. It reduces inefficiencies and keeps mistakes to a minimum, allowing companies to maintain a high turnover of projects and transform themselves into multi-million-dollar giants. However, the emphasis on proper procedure required in doing so creates an environment which some young people find suffocating. PROFESSIONAL RIGOUR Out here, mistakes can happen; yet when they do, they instil in you a professional rigour that is only obtained from working with and alongside people whose lives are made easier by your work. The fact that your skills are desperately needed will always assuage the worry of being thrown to the wolves. Across the globe, the various national chapters of Engineers Without Borders do an invaluable job for young engineers, at university and beyond, by giving them exposure to down-to-earth, real-world challenges. In my view, this is vital for a future career spent helping to sustainably solve the many developmental challenges in our world today. It builds qualities that are useful in any profession; a resistance to going through the motions, a willingness to step outside boundaries. It pulls you out of your comfort zone, but in doing so boosts your burgeoning professional confidence, giving you a rare insight into how your skills and enthusiasm can contribute to practical and meaningful change. So, riding the dirt-tracks of Rwanda may not be comfortable, but I have found that it is definitely a journey worth taking. For more information on EWB-Ireland, visit www.ewb-ireland.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Patrick White is from Co Derry and studied Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London, graduating in 2011. His interests include renewable energy and global development. He lives and works in Kigali, Rwanda.