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30th November 2022

The Event

The 2022 President of the Society, Sir John Armitt, welcomed Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal and other members and guests to our Smeaton Medal award dinner. He particularly welcomed the award winner for 2022, Francesca O’Hanlon.

HRH The Princess Royal welcomed Francesca and presented her with her Smeaton medal.

Francesca then went on to share her experiences and insight into the discussion topic

The Speaker

The subject was introduced by Francesca O'Hanlon.

Francesca is the CEO of Blue Tap, a technology company that creates products to improve access to high quality drinking water in low resource settings. Her career and ambition deeply exemplify an engineer prepared to face danger in the pursuit of assisting vulnerable and disadvantaged people worldwide

Introductory Presentation

Francesca described her career and love of trying to help those less fortunate than ourselves. She also described the journey she went on to produce the chlorine doser, which automatically injects chlorine into household water systems. She described her learning along the way, and the importance of understanding local people’s needs

She then posed three questions to be addressed by those attending the dinner

  • Blue Tap first designed the chlorine doser in a lab in Cambridge. When we took it to a team of plumbers in Uganda, we realised it wasn’t yet fit for purpose, as we had designed the product without the end-users in mind. How can British engineers find more user-friendly solutions?

  • In 2020, the Department for International Development was closed, and the UK aid budget was reduced from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%. Merging the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office into the FCDO was seen as a way to align the UK’s foreign aid budget with the UK’s commercial and political interests How do you think the UK should support global development moving forward?

  • Technological solutions to provide low-income populations with electricity and clean water access are often prohibitively expensive. How could these services be made more affordable for populations in the developing world without undermining the local economy and creating societies that are dependent on aid? 


Those present were hugely impressed by Francesca’s experience and her enthusiasm and drive. She has made a huge impact on a major issue for the world and has done so in a very short space of time. She is a role model for using engineering to make a real difference to the citizens of the world.


Noting that Francesca had been inspired down this route by her membership of Engineers Without Borders UK (EWB-UK), more support and profile should be given to EWB-UK to inspire far more globally responsible engineers. This need not necessarily be financial support but perhaps by giving EWB-UK a platform to speak and higher profile with Government and the professions.

British engineers can design better solutions for middle-income countries by treating communities in those countries as customers and taking care to find out the customers’ needs. This means that British engineers must travel to those countries to properly understand the ‘market,’ i.e. the local environment. But it’s not just the current stated needs that are important; consideration needs to be given to climate change and geopolitical changes to understand the future needs.  We need to help the local community to build local resilience and to create their own solutions.

The merger between DfID and FCO could actually be an opportunity.  It could result in reduced wastage in the aid process. There are benefits in funding to NGOs being aligned with the Foreign Office, so that ambassadors are aware of the work being undertaken in the country. Charities working independently of this network sometimes face difficulties.

Services could be more affordable by being appropriate for the local circumstances – appropriate technology, recognising that the developing world is unconstrained by legacy systems. Government and NGOs should be offered some quick wins, but these need to be politically popular.

People skills are vital, we need to communicate more and listen more to end users, and understand cultural differences and expectations better.

Maintenance and support are very much dependent on local people. This should be treated as being just as important as the first delivery activity. We need to make a difference for people in these countries and making a lasting difference is what is important. Support is needed for the RAEng Africa Prize, funding entrepreneurs locally in Africa, which increases ownership for impact within the host nation.

Finance considerations are important: Should amenities and services ever be free? What is free is not valued. Affordability can be managed by requiring different levels of payment based on income, which requires a community-scale approach. This has a lot to do with how we value things, not just what they cost. The whole system must work, including the role of banks.

The example of ‘Revolving drug funds’ in Burkina Faso was given, whereby the first stock provided to pharmacies was free, so they then could sell and keep funding the business.
Soft power was discussed as many other nations with imperialistic tendencies brought their solutions with either aid, or more probably loans. China was mentioned but there may be others where development assistance came with a quid pro quo return demanding either loans or resources.

Concluding Remarks

The discussions were wide ranging and complementary. We need to break down barriers between the UK and other nations. Engineers need to help each other and collaborate on initiatives. Local training programmes are key to make sure a lasting legacy is left that is fit for purpose for the local communities.

We need to work to scales that are relevant and deliverable in the knowledge that learning must be a two way process between those being helped and the helpers.

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