Alumni profile: Joseph Lanzillo, A.B. ’16

Monday, December 18, 2017 - 12:00pm

Yearlong African journey sparks new perspectives about energy

When Joseph Lanzillo boarded a plane to Tanzania in October of 2016, he wasn’t entirely sure what he was getting himself into.

Lanzillo, A.B. ’16, an environmental science and engineering concentrator at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, would be living alone for the next year as a Benjamin Trustman Fellow. The program is offered by Harvard's Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships.

While he was bound for a part of the world he had never visited and knew very little about, Lanzillo had one thing in common with this East African nation’s 55 million inhabitants—an ardent love of soccer.

“One thing I’ve always loved about soccer, it is applicable everywhere in the world,” he said. “I find it to be a unifying force around the globe, almost a global culture, akin to music and art. You can share soccer even if you don’t share language.”

The soccer Lanzillo would be playing—and teaching—in Tanzania would be much different than the game he fell in love with during his childhood in the Chicago suburbs. He spent his first few months overseas working with the nonprofit organization Coaches Across Continents, which uses sports to start important social conversations in developing countries.

Lanzillo on the field with Coaches Across Continents in Zanzibar, Tanzania. (Photo provided by Joseph Lanzillo.)

Traveling to five cities across Tanzania, Lanzillo coached the athletic training sessions that formed an integral part of weeklong community social development programs. The programs are designed to educate and inspire teachers, administrators, health care professionals, coaches, and others who work with youth. Often, the soccer drills they practiced served as metaphors for the difficult topics they had gathered to discuss, Lanzillo said.

For example, one drill allows two teams to play a small match, but one team’s players are restricted in some way—they aren't allowed to run, or can only play with one foot. The conversation that follows reveals the game as a metaphor for gender inequality, or any other any social inequity present in the particular community.

“It is amazing how, playing on a field together, there is such an energy that comes off that,” he said. “Once they feel comfortable, after they’ve embarrassed themselves in front of strangers, it becomes a lot easier to talk about hot button issues in the community, like sexual abuse in schools, women’s rights, or child labor.” 

While traveling throughout Tanzania, Lanzillo also found opportunities to learn about the energy poverty that hampers the quality of life for millions living in remote Tanzanian villages.

His interest in energy was sparked during high school, when an environmental science class opened his eyes to the need for new, renewable energy solutions. He found a perfect outlet for his love of tinkering, and his passion for protecting the environment, as an environmental science and engineering concentrator at SEAS.

“I want to work in an area that is relevant to the world, doing anything I can to address climate change,” he said. “There are so many problems still to be solved as we strive to make clean energy more prevalent around the world.”

He witnessed many energy problems during his travels, such as when he coached soccer in the lakeside city of Kigoma. The city of 100,000 is too remote to be connected to the nation’s overburdened power grid. Instead, Kigoma receives electricity from a diesel generator. To conserve fuel, electricity is shut off between 11 p.m. and  6 a.m. every day. When the city’s monthly diesel delivery barge is delayed, there is no power until the ship comes in, Lanzillo explained.

Lanzillo visits a company that produces biomass briquettes (pictured) that burn more efficiently and with less smoke than the wood or charcoal typically used in cookstoves. (Photo provided by Joseph Lanzillo.)

He also worked with a company that sells off-grid solar systems to families in rural communities, often providing a home’s only source of electricity. Individuals in these villages would typically walk for miles to the nearest grid-connected town just to charge a cellular phone, Lanzillo said. He learned valuable lessons about energy and culture while working to increase the appeal of solar technology to struggling subsistence farmers.

Lanzillo also worked with a biogas company that sells residential systems to convert cow manure and water into methane gas for cooking. The tanks give families a sanitary way to dispose of manure, while reducing the need to chop firewood. Deforestation in many parts of the country has caused increased erosion on farmer’s fields, Lanzillo said, which directly impacts the food supply.

“The energy company experiences really showed me how difficult it is to maintain this kind of infrastructure when the people who need these services are so far out of reach,” Lanzillo said. “Solar companies in the U.S. and solar companies in Tanzania may be selling the same technology, but it is a completely different product and a completely different business model.”

For Lanzillo, now plotting his career path in the renewable energy industry, a year spent in Tanzania broadened his horizons and encouraged him to look beyond the United States for career opportunities. Many of the most urgent challenges in the renewable energy industry lie in developing nations, and Lanzillo sees those problems as opportunities where he can make the greatest impact.

Lanzillo with the soccer team he played with while in Tanzania, the Arusha Stars. (Photo provided by Joseph Lanzillo.)