Ten years of Engineers Without Borders in Ilmenau: "Helping people help themselves is our mission"

Since 2013, there has been a regional group of Engineers without Borders at the TU Ilmenau. Students and employees from a wide range of departments have joined forces in this group. Together, they are committed to using their technical knowledge to sustainably improve the living conditions of people in the countries of the global south. To this end, they plan and implement infrastructure projects and carry out educational work at home and abroad. To mark its tenth anniversary, the group is presenting its work in an exhibition at the university library from November 11 to 18. We spoke with regional group leader Moritz Mösler, an electrical engineering and information technology graduate of TU Ilmenau, about the mission, values and visions of the non-profit organization.

Ingenieure ohne Grenzen Regionalgruppe Ilmenau
Moritz Mösler taking a water sample in Kenya.

Hello, Mr. Mösler, Engineers Without Borders is a non-profit and independent development cooperation organization. What exactly are you involved in?

We support people where technical cooperation is necessary and possible in order to meet their basic infrastructural needs, especially in the areas of water, electricity, sanitation and building construction. In joint projects with local partners, we develop practical and professional solutions. It is always important to us that we work with our partners and beneficiaries on an equal footing and with locally available resources. By involving our partners in the development process, they can identify with the project and continue the project beyond our local work. Our principle is therefore to help people help themselves.

You yourself joined the Ilmenau regional group of Engineers Without Borders in 2013, shortly after it was founded. What motivated you to do so?

I had already heard about Engineers Without Borders during my bachelor's studies in Leipzig and also attended a lecture there about their work. When my future roommate in Ilmenau then told me about the regional group foundation here, I was immediately enthusiastic and joined the group. The opportunity to use my expertise to help other people live in dignity was, and still is, my motivation.

How many founding members were you at the time, and what projects did you start your work with?

At the beginning, we were about twelve people, but quickly became more. Apparently we had struck a nerve among some students. In the early days, we were looking for possible project ideas and invited international students to tell us about the situation in their home countries. Our first concrete project developed from one of the reports by a Kenyan student. It took a few years until this project was implemented - the financing was very slow in the beginning and could only be secured through a generous individual donation. Things were better with our last project in Uganda. The financing was secured by a Nuremberg foundation.

In recent months, you have set up a photovoltaic system in a school center near the Ugandan capital Kampala, among other things. What challenges did you face in the process?

The project in Uganda started in 2021 - in the middle of the Covid pandemic. Of course, that affected the way we worked. We were not able to do any outreach, but had our partner organization Engineers Without Borders East Africa do the project scouting and implementation.

A core element of all our projects is collaboration with local partner organizations. In this way, we ensure that the project can continue and be maintained after we are gone. In this case, it paid off even more than usual: planning a construction project in an international context is actually an impossibility without personal presence. Thanks to the support of Engineers Without Borders, we were able to carry out not only the reconnaissance but also the construction work without any major problems. In the meantime, the school center has a functioning photovoltaic system. Via an online monitoring access, we can view the technical system data at any time in order to generate empirical values for further projects.

This project was not your first major overseas project. You had already worked in Kenya before.

Our previous project in Nyamache, Kenya, aimed to provide teachers and children and young people in schools in a scattered settlement with a better supply of water. To this end, we worked with the local water committee to rehabilitate a spring catchment and build a cistern as a reservoir. The work on the water supply was carried out by local companies and thus contributed to the sustainable success of the project.

Were you yourself on site at the time?

Yes, I was in Kenya myself twice for the project - once for the project reconnaissance and then a second time for the implementation a few years later. The deep insight into the reality of life of the local people was very formative for me. We stayed overnight with a villager and regularly went with him in the morning to the remote water point to fetch our water for daily needs in canisters.

On site, we met with local authorities and volunteer water committees, visited various schools, and consulted local artisans. I have seen many people who are very interested in improving the local situation, but who often lack the financial means or know-how to do so. Helping these people to help themselves is our mission.

Many members of the regional group are students and employees of the TU Ilmenau, from very different fields. How do you work together on these projects in an interdisciplinary way?

We welcome everyone who wants to get involved, not only TU employees, but also Ilmenau citizens. Even if the name suggests otherwise - we are not only looking for engineers!

In addition to the technical tasks involved in a project, there are many other ways to get involved. For example, our public relations and fundraising group handles the acquisition of new members and donors, writes press releases as well as blog posts, and designs our print materials. In the education group, our members develop workshops on topics such as sustainability, equal opportunities and development cooperation. These are then carried out on project days in schools or at the Ilmenau Children's and Youth University. Craftsmen and other interested people can get involved in our Repariertreff - a successful model of the Ilmenau regional group.

When did you start the repair meeting, and what makes the project so successful from your point of view?

The monthly meeting has been running since 2014. Together, the members have set themselves the task of saving defective devices from the dustbin and at the same time teaching technical skills. To this end, they repair defective small electrical appliances together with their owners. Advice and tools are provided by the repair club. Here, too, the focus is on helping people to help themselves, because the Repariertreff is not a repair service.

What has the work in the regional group brought you personally for your own development?

There are so many things! Volunteering trains the soft skills that are often required, such as communication and organizational skills, as well as problem-solving skills. Thanks to the more than 30 regional groups nationwide, you are also well networked and have familiar faces in many cities. The workshops offered by the association have often helped me professionally and privately. The workshop on intercultural communication was particularly eye-opening for me. Last but not least, the work is simply a lot of fun, a lot of "thinking outside the box" and new friendships.

All projects of Engineers without Borders are carried out on a voluntary basis and financed with the help of donations. For the projects, you are always looking for committed people who would like to strengthen the circle of specialists of all ages. Which areas of expertise are particularly in demand?

Because the tasks are so varied, we are always looking for committed members, not just engineers. We introduce all new members individually to their tasks so that they can develop their skills to the best of their ability and also develop themselves in the process. The workshops offered throughout Germany by Engineers Without Borders are also suitable for personal development. Here, participants learn important soft skills such as intercultural communication or how to organize projects. In the numerous specialist workshops, for example on photovoltaics or water sampling, they are prepared for concrete project work. In addition, the workshops offer the opportunity to network with our more than 4000 members nationwide and to exchange valuable experiences.

At the end of the year, you will conclude the Uganda project. Are there already plans for a follow-up project in which new members can get involved?

We are currently looking for a possible successor project, and a group is currently being formed. Our central project coordination regularly announces projects that are intended to tie in with existing ones and continue good ideas. For those interested in project work, this is the best time to get involved from the very beginning.

On the occasion of the anniversary, you invited to a large alumni reunion. How many university members have been involved in the regional group over the past ten years?

It's difficult to give an exact number, but there are over 150 members who have been active in the regional group over the years.

What are your visions for the next ten years?

My vision is to carry out many more good projects in the next ten years in order to help as many people as possible. In doing so, we will gain experience with each successful project and thus continuously improve. In addition, we will continue to grow with our education group and our repair meeting in order to further promote the topic of sustainability, which has been especially close to our hearts for years. To achieve this vision we can use every helping hand.

Thank you for the interview and good luck with your work!

Here you will find more information about the regional group as well as current dates.


Impressions from ten years of the regional group


Carsten Gatermann

Public Relations und Fundraising Regional Group Ilmenau Engineers without Borders