Interview with Khanjan Mehta, author of ‘The Kochia Chronicles’

Khanjan MehtaABOUT KHANJAN MEHTA

Khanjan Mehta is the Founding Director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) Program at Penn State. The HESE program challenges students and faculty from across campus to break down disciplinary barriers and truly collaborate to develop technology-based solutions to address compelling problems facing resource-constrained communities. The objective is to develop transformative social innovations and scalable business models to transform these technology solutions into sustainable and scalable ventures that enable and accelerate positive social change. Mehta has led technology-based social ventures in Kenya, Tanzania, India, China and other countries. These ventures range from telemedicine systems and ruggedized biomedical devices to low-cost greenhouses, solar food dryers, cell phone-based social networking systems, and knowledge sharing platforms for self-employed women.

Mehta’s research interests encompass affordable design; systems thinking; social entrepreneurship pedagogy; agricultural technologies and food value chains (FVCs); global health and telemedicine systems; cellphones, social networks and trust; indigenous knowledge systems; development ethics and grassroots diplomacy; women in engineering and entrepreneurship; and informal lending systems for micro-enterprises. The objective of these research endeavors is to democratize knowledge and mainstream HESE as a valid and rigorous area of learning, research, and engagement. He has published over 50 journal articles and refereed conference proceedings with a similar number in the pipeline.

Mehta has served on several university-wide and international committees and taskforces. He has delivered invited talks and keynote speeches on technology innovation, social entrepreneurship, and global sustainability at several universities and international conferences. The HESE program was the recipient of the 2013 W.K. Kellogg Foundation Engagement Award (Northeast Region) from APLU, 2011 Outstanding Specialty Entrepreneurship Program Award from the US Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship (USASBE) and was named by Popular Mechanics as one of thirty “Awesome College Labs” across America. While these are good accolades, Mehta’s primary focus is on the HESE ventures that his students are striving to build up to multi-million smile enterprises.

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Q: Thank you for this interview, Khanjan Mehta. Can you tell us what your latest book, The Kochia Chronicles, is all about?

A:  The Kochia Chronicles take readers headlong into the lives and adventures of people in a quintessential African village as they usher in an era of design, innovation and entrepreneurship. People’s knowledge about Africa is largely based on what the popular media feeds them – violence, corruption, disease and starvation. We do not hear stories of the amazing people, their positive attitudes, and their elegant innovations to solve community problems. I wanted to educate readers about “how things work” in one little corner of Africa and showcase the people’s ingenuity, innovation and resilience. My goal, with the book, is to educate people about the real challenges facing the African continent and how people from all spheres of life are coming together to address these complicated challenges.

Q: How did you come up with the idea?

A: After leading poverty alleviation and sustainable development projects in East Africa over the last decade, I really wanted to share my experiences and lessons learned with everyone. I have co-authored over sixty research publications about my work. They are boring and pedantic; my mom would never read them! At the same time, everyone loved hearing stories about my experiences in Africa. Hence, I decided to meld my experiences and research with facts, statistics, emotions, musings, and sketches and weave a series of short stories called The Kochia Chronicles.

Q: What kind of research did you do before and during the writing of your book?

A: The Kochia Chronicles are rooted in rigorous primary research and the vast academic literature on development. Every story owes its genesis to personal experiences gained while leading social ventures in East Africa over the past decade. The stories incorporate perspectives gleaned from conversations with thousands of people across the forty countries that I have traveled across. The focused research behind the stories was done over a three-year period and writing the first draft took a year more. Several translators helped me navigate the context and an amazing sketch artist brought the stories to life through a series of 27 sketches.

Q: If a reader can come away from reading your book with one valuable message, what would that be?

A: If we want to help others improve their quality of life, good intentions and passion are not enough. It is critical for us to empathize with them – step into their shoes and understand their lives, context and choices. Projects fail, or do not realize their full potential, when local knowledge, perspectives and frameworks are not respected and integrated into the project activities.

Q: In your own experience, is it hard to get a nonfiction book published today?  How did you do it?

A: I decided to self-publish this book to keep costs low and speed-up the time to market. More importantly, lean direct-to-consumer business models are perfectly aligned with my philosophy of knowledge democratization and social innovation. Platforms and technologies like Amazon, Createspace, E-readers, and Elance, made it easier to navigate the book publication process while adding a sense of adventure to it. While I am very confident of finding a publishing house or academic press for my forthcoming books, I intend to self-publish all of them.

Q: What’s a typical day like for you?

A: My typical working hours are from 10AM to 4AM. The days are extremely hectic with teaching and non-stop meetings with students, faculty and various committees. I typically respond to email and write/edit journal articles, reports and proposals at night. Work, for me, is a distinct pleasure. I must admit that my schedule has become more free-form after my daughter was born five months back.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: As far as writing is concerned, The Kochia Chronicles is the first part of a three-part series of short stories with the same characters and backdrop. The second set of stories focuses on design and business issues with food systems while the third set focuses on innovative solutions to community health challenges. You might be surprised to know that there are actually some very interesting approaches and technologies being developed in Africa that can help us here at home in the US! I am also working on a book that provides a comprehensive overview of non-traditional career paths for STEM professionals that focus on social value creation.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Khanjan Mehta.  We wish you much success!

A: Thank you! It has been an amazing journey so far. Carpe Diem!

The Kochia Chronicles

Kochia, a sleepy community on the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya, is caught in the turmoil among traditional ways of life, excitement brought about by development projects and the throes of relentless globalization. Cellphones are spreading HIV and funerals are killing people. Cows are drowning in enormous holes dug by white people. Girls are dropping out of school and children are being rented to orphanages. Crusades and miracle services are blurring the lines between religion and crime. Along with the rapidly declining fish population in the lake, the time to ‘teach people how to fish’ has passed. It is time for direct and decisive action. Obongo, Okello, Sister Phoebe and friends unravel the complexities of community challenges and design practical solutions to address them. From cardboard coffins to toothbrush currencies and professional praising services, the solutions are simple, frugal and ingenious. The Kochia Chronicles take readers headlong into the lives and adventures of people in this quintessential African village as they usher in an era of design, innovation and entrepreneurship.

The Kochia Chronicles owe their genesis to the author’s experiences in conducting research and advancing technology-based social ventures in East Africa over the past decade. They draw heavily from the vast literature on development studies and the work of several innovators and entrepreneurs. The stories weave a compelling web of concepts, approaches, facts, statistics, norms, musings, emotions…and full-page illustrations to help readers empathize with the people, their context, and their choices. The Kochia Chronicles are fictitious narratives that bring to life the paradoxical simplicity and complexity of development challenges with the objective of informing and inspiring innovation that leads to the self-determined improvement of lives and livelihoods.

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