Finding the perfect match of technology and need

By Erny Zah
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Jan. 29, 2011

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(Courtesy photo)

Heather Fleming, second from left, stands with Rwandans she worked with in 2009. Behind them on the roof is a "plug and play" solar panel. Catapult Design helped design solar panels to provide local clinics with electricity.



Heather Fleming remembers being a young girl in Vanderwagen, N.M., living with her grandparents. She recalls hauling water and living without electricity.

Her cousins worked for the Indian Health Service and would sometimes allow her to tag along when they would bring in water. But this wasn't the familiar trip to fetch water from the nearest livestock well: Her cousins were civil engineers, and when they brought water, it was to an entire neighborhood.

Those trips helped Fleming see possibilities, and now the 31-year-old product design engineer is on a unique career trajectory as the head of her own nonprofit company.

Fleming said the mission of her company, San Francisco-based Catapult Design, is to help Third World communities fill their own self-defined needs.

Fleming, who is Bit'ahnii (Folded Arms Clan), born for bilagáana, is a graduate of Gallup High School and Stanford University.

However, in a field where product design engineers in the Bay Area can earn more than $70,000 a year fresh out of college, Fleming has chosen a different path.

It doesn't pay nearly as much in money, but offers great opportunity to make a difference.

"I think what Heather saw was a niche there, poverty or food, where somebody has to design a solution," said Bill Burnett, head of Stanford's products design program, who recruited Fleming into the program. "I don't know of another for-profit consulting firm addressing this."

Fleming's company has helped communities around the world - South Africa, Rwanda and India, to name a few - by designing products that meet a need the local people have identified.

She would like to bring some of her innovative ideas back to the Navajo Nation, too.

Last June, Fleming and her team of five spent a couple of weeks on the Navajo Reservation to explore ideas for supplying home electricity needs with renewable energy.

The team ended up staying with Leonard Begay in his rural home in Nazlini Chapter.

"They wanted to know how some families live out here," recalled Begay, 43. "I guess what they were looking at was solar and wind energy and watershed projects."

All the visitors were polite and respectful, he said, noting that most of the team had never seen so many Native Americans before.

Fleming is sensitive to the need to respect communities they want to help - engineers have historically been among the worst perpetrators of cultural imperialism, striding confidently into unknown territory and telling the locals what they need, instead of asking what the people see as a priority.

"I think it's time to readdress how we evaluate poverty and rethink how we look at issues," she said.

At the same time, she doesn't see herself as a cultural imperialist on the Navajo Nation, adding that it's discouraging when people label her as such for trying to give back.


She cited an example to illustrate how she goes about finding solutions for what the community wants versus what the engineers want for them.

A Kinlichee Chapter family was living in a plywood home without electricity and running water, but when Fleming asked the people what they wanted to make their life better, "it wasn't electricity, it was a better road."

"We have to be sensitive to what people actually want," she said. In this case the family needed a road engineer, not product design.

Once the need is expressed, Catapult Design finds an agency or company to fund the design of the product, which Fleming said can be difficult.

But Fleming's ambition doesn't end with a product, like the wind turbines she designed in Guatemala or the reusable birthing kit in India. She wants to bring a product that will enhance the overall life of the community receiving the product.

Ideally she wants to design "something that ultimately affects job creation. Even if you get the people these technologies, if you're not giving them an income or a way to improve their way of life, then you are really not doing anything for an individual."

"She has a ton of energy," said Burnett, who continued to work with Fleming after she graduated from college. "Boy, she is determined. When she gets an idea to do something, you don't want to get in her way."

Fleming said she is still trying to figure out how to fit her skills and desire into the needs of the Navajo people, and is in talks with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

"I'm continually impressed with what they got going on," she said.

Fleming has noted that water pumps could be improved, but said all the stakeholders have to be involved to make any project successful. And it's important to make sure the technology fits, pointing to the breakage problem many people here have experienced with home solar units.

"A lot of it is because people are pushing these things on the community without getting the buy-in or making it sustainable to them," Fleming said. "The need, want, and what-would-they-pay-for are the three main criteria."

Information: http://catapultdesign.org.

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