Skip to Content

Making an Impact - Purdue researchers address youth substance crisis in Democratic Republic of the Congo


Pengyi Shi

Purdue University researchers Pengyi Shi, an associate professor of management, Nan Kong, a professor of biomedical engineering, and Omolola A. Adeoye-Olatunde, an assistant professor of pharmacy practice, have received the Shah Family Global Innovation Lab’s 2022 Seed Grant Award for their proposal to co-develop a digital solution and decision support system addressing the youth substance abuse crisis in Aru, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The external collaborators on the project include local community leaders in Aru, World Concern, an NGO that aims to transform the lives of poor and marginalized people through disaster response and sustainable community development, and Jonathan Helm, an associate professor at Indiana University.   

“War in eastern DRC has impacted the lives of the general population with youth being particularly affected,” says Shi, who serves as principal investigator on this multi-year, interdisciplinary project. “The prevalence of youth using substances has exacerbated the societal problems, creating a vicious cycle in which youth drop out of school, start abusing substances, join armed groups, and perpetuate the dangerous environment that drives even more youth from the broader society toward idling and addiction.” 

According to Shi, two specific needs identified in discussions with Aru’s local leadership teams are expanding current prevention programs for basic education and job skill training to prevent at-risk youth from turning to substance abuse, and building new rehab centers to provide medical-assisted treatment and group counseling/therapy for youth addicted to substances. 

“We came to understand that addressing these challenges must begin with developing a comprehensive, system-level understanding of resources, capacities, processes, and demand needed to achieve these two primary needs,” Shi says. “Little progress can be made toward maximizing the impact of these extremely limited community resources without measuring the current state of the system.” 

The project’s first step is to gain a clear understanding of the current situation with process mapping, utilization and bottleneck analysis, and demand analysis of at-risk youth in the community. One challenge is that there is limited to no data to support those missions.  

“Youth leaders and community workers, who serve as the most important hubs for connecting with local youths, have no digital infrastructure, relying solely on manual data collection and documentation,” Shi says. “Not only does this take time away from the core tasks of recruitment and program delivery, lacking a structured data collection and documentation mechanism also imposes the biggest barrier for developing evidence-based solutions.” 

The Aru and academic teams determined that an operations-driven approach would provide the greatest lasting impact, opening the door for other initiatives that reach far beyond this initial exploration phase. The main component in this phase involves building a digital data management tool and a standardized process for mapping out and documenting program resources and usage, correlation between activities, services provided, and outcomes to maximize the effectives of budget allocations.  

person pointing at laptop screen

Targeting functionality and adoptability in the DRC, the second component of the project includes integrating data visualization, utilization tracking, and workload and resource needs evaluation into the digital platform to aid decision-making for the local leadership team.

“In the DRC and other under-developed countries meeting similar challenges, the lack of data and data-driven analysis is one of the major barriers to increasing impact and effective expansion of community-based prevention and rehabilitation programs for substance abuse,” Shi says. “The digital platform will position the Aru team with the necessary infrastructure for managing the existing programs, increasing outreach, and establishing new programs now and in the future.” 

According to Shi, the impact of this data system stretches far beyond a single project.  

“This will also provide the prototype for a sustainable infrastructure development to enable continuous improvement in other resource- and data-limited countries/regions like DRC and even under-resourced areas in the U.S.,” she says. “This research has tremendous potential to bring data-driven decision making to communities that have been left behind even as the era of data continues to grow.”   

Shi, Kong, Adeoye-Olatunde were selected into the first cohort of the Purdue Societal Impact Fellows Program in fall 2021, where the connection of this interdisciplinary team started to form. “As a researcher who always has passion in using research to solve societal challenges, I have learned a lot through this program,” Shi says. “The mentoring sessions provided tremendous help for me to understand more deeply the concept of community engagement and how to start a community-engaged project.”

“The Societal Impact Fellows Program fosters the development of societal impact across mission areas for faculty and staff,” says Rod Williams, Purdue’s assistant provost for engagement. “Fellows work with a panel of senior faculty mentors from Purdue who have a history of successful engaged scholarship and receive direct feedback from mentors on their proposals, with a special emphasis on integrating societal impact. The Office of Engagement is delighted the program is helping build a community of engaged scholars like Drs. Shi, Kong, and Adeoye-Olatunde focused on addressing societal challenges.”

Media Contact: Pengyi Shi,