Friday, August 17, 2018

Interview with Khanjan Mehta, author of The Kochia Chronicle

Find out more about Khanjan Mehta and his latest book, The Kochia Chronicles

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.

1.What inspired you to write your first book?

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! Hence, I decided to meld my experiences with research, facts, statistics, emotions, musings, and sketches and weave a series of short stories called The Kochia Chronicles. 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.

2.What books have influenced your life the most?

The Sherlock Holmes and Malgudi Days series would top the list followed by the works of Ayn Rand. Every day, I spend about 3-4 hours reading academic books, research papers and news articles. In essence, I draw my knowledge and inspiration from many different sources.

3.What are your current projects

As far as writing is concerned, I am working on the next set of stories in The Kochia Chronicles series. The stories relate to challenges with the food and health systems in Africa. I am also working on a book that provides a comprehensive overview of non-traditional career paths for scientists and engineering that focus on addressing social challenges facing our communities.

4.If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

Nope. I love it as it is.

5.What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author?

“No one really cares about Africa and no one is going to read your book,” the editor of a well-known publishing house told me. He was partially right. 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. The Africans have taught me so much about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The criticism just strengthened my resolve to move forward with my book and provide a different narrative on Africa.

6.What has been the best compliment?

I have received several compliments from readers who found the stories captivating and entertaining besides being educational. That was quite a surprise and, frankly, very gratifying. After all, I am an electrical engineer, technology entrepreneur and researcher and had never written fictional stories before!

7.Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?

This is extremely clichéd but so true: Just keep writing! There will be many distractions. There will be umpteen moments of self-doubt when you are wondering if anyone will ever read your book. Just keep writing!

8.What is your favorite quality about yourself?

My crazy imagination and strong work-ethic.

9.What is your least favorite quality about yourself?

I tend to be a perfectionist and spend countless hours on the most miniscule or unnecessary tasks.

10. Is there anything else you would like to share?

The Kochia Chronicles is a social venture. The three goals of the book are 1. Education, 2. Education and 3. Education. I would love to hear your thoughts and lessons learned from the stories. While the Facebook page for the book is the best way to connect, I would be glad to converse by email too.

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Novel Noise is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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