From July 8 to August 19, twelve ESME Sudria students from the developmental aid association “IDÉES Madagascar” headed down to the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean to conduct a number of humanitarian missions which called upon their engineering spirits. Jean-Baptise Varlet (ESME Sudria Class of 2017), President of the association, has been improving the everyday lives of Malagasy locals since his very first mission in 1996. Let’s take a look back at this memorable 2016 adventure.
Did the IDÉES Madagascar projects go off as planned this year?
Absolutely! Everything went extremely well and we were able to complete all our projects on time. Once on-site, we needed three weeks to create a 1,150-foot drinking water supply network (from the Andohatraka village source) and five weeks to finalize the completion of the Alakamisy-Ambohimaha village school extension. We finished the school project the night before flying back to France! In addition to these two projects, we completed two other small missions (painting the school built last year and repairing a water supply network) and one more large mission while there: the creation of a computer club in Alakamisy-Ambohimaha, a project that took around a month to complete.
The computer club wasn’t part of the original plan, was it?
It’s true the project wasn’t on the initial agenda drawn up at the beginning of the year. But at the end of the day, the association was able to raise a lot more money than expected: we went from having 30,000 euros – or the ideal budget for carrying out the two main projects – to 67,000 euros! We owe this surge to a crowdfunding campaign we launched, and especially to the pair of 22,000 euro donations made by the PartnerRe corporation. PartnerRe financed 75% of our mission, and for that we are extremely grateful!
It seemed like we were “playing it safe” by not taking advantage of the situation to add another mission. The donations came at just right time, for we had recently received a request to set up the computer club along with an outline of its plans and a provisional budget. To build it, we had to call upon help of local workers, whereas we usually work with masons from the capital of Tananarive who travel with us to the sites. Even if this particular site progressed more slowly than usual, everything ran smoothly and we were able to complete the project on time.
What does the computer club look like?
Actually, the club already existed, but the building was pretty much left to rot. The equipment was extremely outdated, and pigs and chickens were roaming around the computers… We decided to provide the club with a proper structure, as well as some new equipment: if I remember right, we brought in about a dozen PCs and laptops, some Ethernet hubs, cables, a box for Internet access, etc. Once on-site, we were able to count on the help and support of the club’s director, who is also a member of our association and who has been working with us for four years now. The director gives computer and software lessons (Word, Excel, etc.) to the local youth with the help of students from the University of Fianarantsoa, a large city located around 12 miles from the village. We hope our efforts will allow the town and the communities around it to continue to develop, and that the children of the region, more and more of whom are attending school, will be able to continue their studies all the way through college.
Incidentally, the room upstairs from the computer club is now the headquarters of the NGO IDÉES Madagascar! After more than ten years of paperwork and administrative struggles, we finally obtained a document called a “headquarters agreement,” which provides us with an NGO status in Madagascar. In France, however, we are still an association so our status will not change.
How will your new status help the organization?
It provides for certain “privileges,” but comes with a number of responsibilities vis-à-vis the Malagasy State in return. Basically, the two main advantages are that we no longer have to pay for visas – we go from having tourist visas to courtesy visas – and we are now exempt from customs fees when we have equipment imported into the country. On the other hand, we are required to adapt our plans to the development plans of the village, as well as employ local workers for all work performed on site – which is something we already do.
Nearly every year, IDÉES Madagascar provides a village with access to drinking water. How does your team feel at the end of the construction when it sees the first drops of water flowing from the faucet?
This year, I wasn’t able to take part in the ceremony because I was too busy with other sites and the purchasing of equipment. But I was there in 2015 to celebrate the creation of the water supply in the village of Ambohibory – by the way, I must confess I didn’t wait until the entire network was finished before turning the valves, as we were all too excited to see just how much our hard work had paid off! Whenever we first begin working on a site, whether it be 1,000 or more than 3,000 feet long, we always ask ourselves how the water is actually going to make it to the village. When the water flows for the first time, the entire village jumps for joy with us. It’s an incredible feeling, and a real moment of bonding with the workers from the village. It’s also when we feel a sense of personal euphoria for having pushed ourselves to the limit to get the job done.
What exactly did the extension of the Alakamisy-Ambohimaha village school entail?
The school was already in place. Although it consisted of three buildings, its classrooms were overflowing, with up to 80 students in one class at the same time. It was therefore necessary to build a new building with three classrooms. Our goal was to improve the school’s learning conditions – and we succeeded. The building, however, is not entirely finished: next year we have to do the painting. This is the already the fourth school we have built, and in general we take time out of the following year’s mission to complete the painting and add the finishing touches. For now, the school is already functional. But next year it will be prettier! We also bought benches, desks, and chairs for the students and teachers so they can return to school in the best possible conditions.
Check out IDÉES Madagascar on its website, Facebook, and Twitter.
Although exercise bikes are now used abundantly by people in the confines of their own homes, they are often frustrating and monotonous for those who are used to cycling outdoors. Addressing this issue, the company Cab2way has offered 5th year Digital Intelligence & Data majors at ESME Sudria the chance to create a simulator prototype composed of three 4-foot high, panoramic screens allowing for the recreation of an environment that can produce the same sensory stimulation as that experienced by outdoor athletes. These students have taken up the challenge by developing a model featuring a variety of immersive technologies (video/sound synchronization, GPS data, a fragrance diffuser, etc.) that are sure to charm your inner Christopher Froome. Who knows, soon you might just be riding in the Tour de France from the comfort of your own home!
Like Vincent Cottenceau (ESME Sudria Class of 1999), a Commander in the French National Army with a degree in Telecommunications, every year a number of ESME Sudria graduates turn their attention to engineering careers in the defense sector. For some students, this vocation begins well before the end of their studies. That was the case for Matthieu Clement (Class of 2017), a 4th year Information Technology student who recently participated in the 2016 edition of the “Grandes Écoles” Seminar of the Institute of Advanced Studies in National Defense (IHEDN). During the seminar, which was held from June 27 to July 1 at the École Militaire (Military School) in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, Matthieu attended numerous conferences, met professionals from the sector, rubbed shoulders with students from other prestigious schools (Sciences Po, HEC, Centrale, Arts & Métiers, Supaéro, etc.), worked on current issues, and especially, became more confident in his choice of careers.
Matthieu, the ESME Sudria student selected to attend the “Grandes Écoles” Seminar of the IHEDN
You are currently an Information Technology major at ESME Sudria. What made you choose this field?
I chose IT because it’s the most general major for reaching my goal, which is to work in either the public or private sector of the defense sector. I had a hard time deciding between IT and Networking – which is also an extremely good fit for defense – but finally went with IT.
It must be my patriotic side – I even wanted to do a year of military service, but that didn’t end up working out. At one point, I also wanted to work in forensic science. But after a month-long internship in the Digital Forensics Division at the Forensic Sciences Institute of the National Gendarmerie (IRCGN), I realized it wasn’t for me and became even more interested in defense.
Where did you get your patriotic side? From your family?
Yes, I come from a military family so must have picked it up from them. I also have an historian grandfather who is an expert on Napoleon. All of that certainly played a part in my feeling attached to France.
Which explains your presence at the seminar… How did your participation come about?
A friend of my mother’s knew I wanted to work in defense and spoke to me about it. She said it was a fascinating seminar, one I really shouldn’t miss. After talking to a few people who had attended the so-called “classic” seminar and inquiring about how to participate in the seminar reserved for students of the “Grandes Écoles,” I submitted my application and had the good fortune of being selected.
The seminar took place at the École Militaire (Military School) in Paris
What exactly did it involve?
The goal of the “Grandes Écoles” Seminar was to heighten awareness among students with regard to the various fields which may emerge as the “great employers of tomorrow.” This awareness included the national and political issues at stake in the French defense sector, as well as the operations which could take place elsewhere in the world with a focus, for example, on the abilities of large companies to influence their home countries. The seminar was fairly thorough and allowed me to acquire valuable insight into the world of defense, including the functioning of the Army, the diversity of its operations, etc.
Half of the seminar was dedicated to conferences hosted by generals and other top members of the military, researchers, and even a one-time member of the UN and some former ambassadors. There was also a variety of presentations conducted by organizations such as ANAJ-IHEDN, an association offering free membership for at least one year to everyone who participated in an IHEDN seminar, along with some interesting benefits.
We spent the rest of the time in committees, set up as diverse groups of fifteen students each. In my group, for example, there were military students from Saint-Cyr, students from Sciences Po, etc. Together, we had to work for three hours per day on the question of the extent to which our armed forces can be adapted to function on French territory. Each day, two different committees worked on the same subject, and at the end of the week we had to submit a report. The idea was not to repeat what we already knew, but to bring new ideas to the table. And since the report could only be four pages long, we were forced to edit our work to retain only that which was essential.
Which qualities were you able to bring to your committee?
I was somewhat more objective than most of the other committee members, who came from political and literary backgrounds. They were such experts in their fields that they sometimes had difficulty seeing other points of view. A good example was the case of “Operation Sentinelle”, which was set up after the terrorist attacks of January 2015. During the November attacks, there were in fact soldiers stationed near the Bataclan, but they stayed put. Although some of the committee members were right to point out that the soldiers didn’t move because of their duty not to act without orders, I thought it was important to emphasize that this incapacity to act could also be seen in a highly negative light.
In the end, did this seminar make you want to stay on your current career path?
Absolutely! All the conferences were extremely interesting and exciting. They were governed by the Chatham House Rule: speakers could say anything they wanted, and we could repeat anything they said as long as we didn’t make a connection between what was said and the person who said it. This rule allowed each of the speakers to maintain a certain liberty of expression.
What would you tell students hoping to take part in this seminar next year?
Not to hesitate. I can definitely say that participating in this seminar brought me into greater contact with the world of defense. Before the seminar, I often told myself I’d need a lot of time to understand the sector. But we learned so much over the course of a week that my ideas about defense immediately became much more concrete. For students interested in this domain, it’s a huge plus. For the others, the seminar is still extremely interesting, for it allows you to understand how France can manage its crises and conduct its operations, or it simply enables you to see the world in a different light – one ambassador tackled the Russia-Ukraine conflict from his own point of view, which sometimes went against every other opinion you can read on the subject. It’s always good to have different viewpoints from people in the field.
IHEDN’s mission is to heighten awareness among all citizens “by providing in-depth information on national defense in the broadest possible terms.” To complete this mission, each year IHEDN organizes two national sessions and several regional sessions which are open to prominent figures who are designated by order of the Prime Minister, as well as other thematic training courses.