D-Lab Development

Income generating technologies, the deep-sand wheelchair, and blacksmithing in Botswana

by Justin Carrus '17

Jephtha, Keemenao, Cady '18, and Mina '17 headed to town with the prototypes!

Amy and Mina '17 drilling a hole the old fashioned way.


Cady '18 using a hot wire cutter to make a foam piece.


Kavya '17 explains the merits of a small rocket stove design.


Mina '17 and Shannon '19 mixing cement for the forge.


Annie '19 shows off some glass beads.


Orlando '17 demonstrates the function of a Morama nut sheller prototype.


Michael the blacksmith forging a knife on his traditional forge.






Technologies for income generation, crop processing, cooking, mobility, and low-cost blacksmithing all shared the stage during a month of travel in January 2017 when a team from D-Lab visited two villages in Botswana, D'kar and Kaputura, for project follow-up and relationship building. The team pulled members from both the D-Lab: Development course(Annie Dai '19, Kavya Pathak '17, and Orlando Ward-Santos '17) and the D-Lab: Mobility course (Mina Blume '17, Cady Lytle '18, and Shannon McCoy '19). D-Lab Founding Director Amy Smith, MIT Senior Lecturer in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering Mike Tarkanian, These Hands founder and community partner Thabiso Blak Mashaba, community partner and IDDS 2016 participant Keemenao Matale, and D-Labber Justin Carrus '17 also traveled with the team.

The team first traveled to the village of D'kar, the host of IDDS 2016: Botswana. In an intense 10-day period of project work, students worked with community members to prototype new approaches, refine existing designs, and conduct experiments to advance solutions to problems identified and pursued by IDDS participants.

Income-generationg projects: glass beads, Morama nut shelling, a rocket stove, and a deep-sand wheelchair

One project focused on income generation for locals. By harnessing the power of the sun, a Fresnel lens, and hand-crafted mold allows old glass bottles to be melted down and reshaped into glass beads for jewelry-making, a common source of income generation in this area. During the trip, different mold-release techniques were investigated as well as strategies for attaching the glass beads to necklaces and bracelets.

In a similar vein, another project focused on a crop processing problem for another source of income generation. A nut, the Morama, indigenous to the region is highly valued now for its use in a roasted beverage, but the shell of the nut is very difficult to crack. The team from MIT brought some new concepts to try and worked to refine a prototype created during IDDS. Three designs were finished and are set to move on to a phase of low-volume production.

Another project aimed to leverage rocket stove technology to create a small cookstove capable of efficiently burning "rubbish" firewood, small scraps that would normally be left behind when harvesting wood. This project is motivated by a scarcity of firewood in the region and saw progress in the form of some new prototypes and plans for extended user testing and home trials.

The final project focused on mobility by bringing a new design for a wheelchair capable of navigating the deep sand found in this area. Building on work during the fall semester, the members of the D-Lab: Mobility class continued refining their design and began extensive user testing with a community member named Jephtha who currently uses a South African made Rough Rider wheelchair. In the final days, the team planned for a lengthy trip to the General Store some two kilometers away, further than Jephtha had ever traveled before on his own power. The team made the journey without any problems!

Blacksmithing and Build-Its in Kaputura

After D'kar, the team traveled north to Kaputura, a small settlement of fewer than 1,000 residents. A previous D-Lab Creative Capacity Building training participant was the only connection, but after only a few days the team left with many new friends.

The primary motivation for traveling to this village was to spend time working with the local blacksmith, Michael, who made hoes, knives, and axes for much of the Okavango Delta region. Mike Tarkanian, MIT's very own practicing blacksmith, worked closely with the team as the local blacksmith shared his work practices and also some problems he faced. At Michael's request, the team worked to raise his anvil and forge to a standing height as well as develop some low-cost bellows.

In addition to the team's work with Michael, the group held Build-It activities with community members to share some of D-Lab's technologies and gauge interest for a future Creative Capacity Building training. Community members made corn shellers, hot wire foam cutters, and some extremely popular corn "coffee." These activities were a precursor to followup by community partner These Hands, which will hold a week-long Creative Capacity Building  training later this year.

Beyond project work, the team learned to fetch water, launder clothes by hand, and appreciate the conversation afforded by a 12-hour bus ride. Community members opened their homes for stays where students were able to live with families and learn more about life in the Kalahari. Students learned to make arrowheads, set bird traps, and produce the four different types of clicks essential to many languages in this region. Meals were prepared, friendships cemented, and many a laugh shared as the team built upon work from the semester and learned more about the context in which these incredible people live.

D-Lab: Development Uganda Team 2017: Innovation Workshop & Charcoal Grinder Ventilation

by Rachel Galowich ‘18 and Drew Beller ‘18

Worksop instructors, facilitators, and volunteers from D-Lab, TEWDI, and the Soroti region. (Photo: Lauren Bustamante)


Rachel helps students measure the strength of their spaghetti marshmallow tower. (Photo: Nai Kalema)


Jim (Makerere Universit) and Maddie Haas prepare a bottle rocket for launch. (Photo: Lauren Bustamente)


Drew, Joy (EWB), Mambo (AEST), Abudalla (AEST), and Juma (AEST) show off the sketch model and final product of the chute for the charcoal grinder. (Photo: Lauren Bustamante) 


Tim, Drew, and Juma (Central Engineering) show off a sketch model of their idea to modify the charcoal grinder. (Photo: Lauren Bustamante)

Over the course of the January Independent Activities Period, we had the opportunity to travel to Uganda as a continuation of our class in the fall: D-Lab: Development. D-Lab: Development was a diverse class of about 40 students, including students from multiple schools and across multiple majors, in which the class learned about all aspects of development work. The class included case studies on a variety of past development projects around the world and we planned development projects of our own. The class was split into small groups that were assigned projects in different countries. Rachel Galowich ‘18, Tim Manganello ‘17, Maddie Haas ‘17, and I (Drew Beller ‘18) were assigned to work in Uganda along with our team leaders D-Lab staff member Nai Kalema and graduate student Lauren Bustamante. We were also fortunate to be joined by Joy Lee ‘18 who was working with the MIT Engineers without Borders program to perform a needs assessment on recycling low density plastics.

While we were in Uganda, we worked on two projects with our partner Betty Ikalany in the Soroti district. Betty is an entrepreneur who has started her own charcoal briquette and cookstove manufacturing business as well as TEWDI (an NGO focused on helping women and children in poverty stricken areas). The first project (led by Rachel and Maddie) was an innovation workshop aimed at teaching students ages 10-18 about the design process and introduce them to a variety of STEM topics. Our second project (led by Tim, Joy, and me) was working to improve the ventilation of Betty’s charcoal grinder and help teach her team about the design process as well. Overall, the trip was a lot of fun and a unique experience that I believe we all will remember the rest of our lives. We met amazing people, ate amazing food, and hopefully had an impact on the community we worked with.

Innovation Workshop

The first day of the innovation workshop, we were greeted by more than 60 young adults from around Soroti. Over the course of the first week, we introduced our students to each phase of the design process, including methods of how to conduct interviews to gather information and assess community needs, brainstorm effectively, and choose ideas to further develop. This culminated in a day-long hackathon on Friday, where we challenged our students to use the design process to innovate an efficient way to light cook stoves.

Throughout the first week, each of us got to share lessons and activities in areas of our expertise. Tim, Drew, and Joy gave guest lectures on chemistry, electronics, and biology, followed by fun activities involving pH testing, potato LED circuits and gumdrop DNA. Maddie and Rachel both led favorites from our departments back at MIT: students launched water rockets and built structures out of spaghetti and marshmallows.  

On Monday of the second week, we gave each team the chance to present the results of their hackathon project. Then, it was time to begin working on team projects! Students spent the rest of Monday brainstorming. By Tuesday morning, we had a list of 11 projects:

  • White Team: Charcoal Refrigerator
  • Pink Team: Biodigester
  • Red Team: Forged Aluminum Saucepans
  • Orange Team: Brick Oven
  • Yellow Team: Drip Irrigation System
  • Lime Team: Solar Dryer
  • Green Team: Eggshell Crusher
  • Turquoise Team: Mosquito-Repelling Jelly
  • Blue Team: Sponges
  • Purple Team: Vacuum Cleaner
  • Lavender Team: Mosquito Repelling Candles

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we pushed students to apply aspects of the design process we discussed throughout week one. Students came up with lists of stakeholders in their projects and potential interview questions. They sketched dimensioned drawings and made 3D sketch models of their designs out of paper and tape. At the end of the day on Wednesday – after many exhausting trips to town – we were able to begin handing out materials, but only after students showed us their progress, and created a schedule of how they would budget their remaining time. It was incredible to watch their projects take shape, and then present their prototypes to friends, family, and distinguished community members with confidence.

Our goal was to engage local youth in creative capacity building so they could design and build technologies addressing issues prevalent in their community, and inspire them to explore topics in STEM. We definitely succeeded with the latter – our students were very engaged in the science lectures and accompanying activities, and some even approached the guest instructor after class to learn more about the topics they had covered. Many of the final projects were of high quality, but we had to push students through the correct brainstorming sequence more than we had anticipated, and help them understand that every solution must have a clear link to a community problem. We think there should be more emphasis placed on this perspective in upcoming workshops.

Technical Project (Charcoal Grinder Ventilation)

The largest problem we were able to identify was that the fine ground charcoal dust coming out of the charcoal grinder was coming out much too fast. As a result the small factory would quickly fill with a thick cloud of charcoal dust that was not a suitable work environment. This ventilation problem was commonly solved by other manufactures in the area by adding a large and complex fan and duct system to carry the dust away. We challenged ourselves and Betty’s team to come up with a low-cost, non-invasive way to improve the ventilation through a solution without any moving parts.

Our first week was spent prototyping a variety of ideas and working through an ideation and brainstorming process with Betty’s team. As we iterated and failed, it was hard to convince Betty’s team that we were making progress. They often laughed at our prototypes (made from pieces of scrap metal, old t-shirts, and duct tape) and were more interested in the complex fan system that other manufacturers in the area were using. By the end of the week, we started to have our first successful tests using a combination of ideas and Betty's team became more interested in the approach. Once they saw the potential of prototyping and trying new ideas they quickly got on board. From our first successful test on the Thursday of our first week to one week later when we left, Betty’s team really drove what we were working on and became very involved in ideation and testing.

Our final design involved adding a cloth tube as an extension to the output chute of the grinder. This helped to slow down the flow of charcoal dust and also allowed the grinder to deposit right into another collection bag. The addition of this cloth tube also caused a back flow of air and caused charcoal dust to come out of the input to the grinder. To fix this problem, we added a long chimney with a cloth filter on the end. Very little dust comes out of the chimney, but it does allow for more airflow. We found that with the chimney we solved the problem of charcoal dust coming out of the input. We also believe that having a large chimney acts as a sort of depressurization area, where the airflow and charcoal dust can slow even more before coming in contact with the outside environment. The final modification we made was to raise the grinder 30 inches into the air to allow for a collection bag to be placed directly under the output.

We were able to manufacture the entire extension and chimney assembly on site at Betty’s house with the help of her cookstove team. The extension was made out of .8mm steel, which was then taken to town to be welded onto the grinder. We also used a local tailor to make us the correct size cloth tube.

We weren’t able to see our final design being run in a full production day, but hope that we will receive good feedback soon. More important, we worked closely with Betty’s team from ideation to prototyping to testing to manufacturing the final product. We hope that the lessons we learned by working together and through this ventilation project will help them fix any problems they encounter in the future as well as improve on things that already exist.

From Pipe Dream to Pipe REALITY”: Water Access and Problem Solving in El Sauce, El Salvador

By Alan Diaz-Romero '17

Samir Wadhwania and Geovany Moreno talking with the women of El Sauce about to describe how to connect the pipes that would provide them with water for laundry.

Left to right: Samir Wadhwania '18, D-Lab instructor Libby Hsu, and Alan Diaz-Romero '17.


Wilfredo, the health promoter of El Sauce and nearby communities, poses with members of the El Tanque community for an impromptu photoshoot.


Samir Wadhwania measures the elevation of a hill using his smartphone. We used this data to determine the type of pump we needed to get over this hill. Our tests showed us we didn't need one.


Measurements were carefully taken in order to purchase the correct amount of materials. Underestimating materials meant half a day of travel to purchase what we were missing. Here we are measuring the incline of the roof for the spring fed reservoir in El Sauce.


The men of Guayabo worked over a week to create a cistern to hold the water being carried from a spring in El Sauce. The base of the cistern is seen here under construction.


Samir Wadhwania '17 and I were both D-Lab: Development students in the fall of 2015 and traveled to El Salvador over the Independent Activities Period in January of 2016. We worked on a variety of projects through ASOPROSAR, a local NGO and longtime D-Lab community partner.

We returned to El Salvador in August to develop a water distribution project in the mountainous community of El Sauce. Our project originally called for a solar-powered water pump to push water from a local spring from one side of the community to the other. As is common in development, our project changed once we arrived in the country. We realized that gravity does a really good job of carrying water downhill and a pump was not necessary. We cheered what seemed to be a radical simplification of our project. Although we had already bought all the electronic components necessary for running a water pump on nuclear fusion (Google: How does the sun work?), we did not need to figure out how to protect the system from weather and thieves, and we did not need to develop a maintenance plan once the system was installed. The solar panel, battery, and associated accessories could be stored at ASAPROSAR.

By our second week in El Salvador, we believed our project to be all figured out. All we needed to do was install a roof on the spring-fed reservoir from which we were drawing water, build a cistern on the other side of the community to store the water we were drawing, and lay down the PVC pipes needed to carry the water. We hoped our project would be able to quickly improve the lives of the women and children who walked up and down hilly paths several times a day to collect water. By reducing the physical stress and the sheer time needed to carry water, we hoped the women and children of El Sauce would have more time and energy for education or work outside of the home.

However, development, much like everything in life, is complicated. A project about water distribution is also a project about resource management, and a project about resource management is also a project about politics. We discovered that the formal community of El Sauce is actually comprised of two distinct informal communities: El Sauce and Guayabo. (For the remainder of this post, “El Sauce” will refer to the informal sub-community.)

The spring and reservoir is located in El Sauce and the cistern we built is located in Guayabo. The people of El Sauce are able to draw water directly from the spring through a well separate from the reservoir we improved. The people of Guayabo drew water from either the El Sauce spring or from a spring down hill. The path to this Guayabo-side spring is hard to navigate and is dangerously isolated. The men of Guayabo wanted to seal the reservoir in order to protect the water from contamination. However, the women of El Sauce used water from the reservoir to clean their clothes and bathe. They wanted guarantees that they would still be able to access water from the reservoir (especially in the dry months). 

Tensions grew as we tried to negotiate a shared-use alternative for the reservoir improvement. These negotiations also challenged our conceptions of “ownership” and “fairness.” Legally, the water does not belong to either community. The water and all of the land in and around the communities are part of a coffee plantation owned by Spaniards. Although our project seemed to have the blessing of the plantation supervisor, the specter of “true ownership” still cast a wide shadow over our work during the month we were there. 

After multiple discussions and a community meeting, we reached a compromise between the people of Guayabo and El Sauce. We designed a new well adjacent to the reservoir with a direct connection to the reservoir water. The men of Guayabo would be able to seal the reservoir, while the women would still be able to access water to clean their clothes. 

When we left El Salvador, the project was still incomplete. The pipe still needed to be laid and the roof for the reservoir still needed to be constructed. We left behind all the materials needed to complete the project as well as instructions on how to do so. We plan on following up with the community through ASAPROSAR and we will return to El Sauce in January 2017. It is our hope that the compromise held and water is being shared. We plan to continue working with the communities of El Sauce and Guyabo and co-develop future projects together. 

Samir’s travel and expenses were generously supported by a D-Lab Fieldwork Grant, funded by the MIT Underclassmen Giving Campaign.


D-Lab Student January Fieldwork: Zambia!

By Chitti Desai, Wellesely College '16

Chitti Desai getting a ride to a cookout from D-Lab instructor and trip co-leader Eric Reynolds.

Co-Design Workshop in the open air.

Role playing a customer interview.

Loading the gearbox onto a boat.

Peeling pumpkin leaves.

The D-Lab team in South Luangwa National Park.












Just a few days into the new year of 2016, I had the amazing opportunity to spend three weeks in Zambia doing fieldwork as part of the D-Lab: Development class, along with fellow classmates Sam and Tiffany, and our trip leaders D-Lab instructor Eric Reynolds and Natalie Brubaker. We  worked with the IDIN Kafue Innovation Center, the Zambian government’s National Technology Business Centre (NTBC), and Zasaka, a social enterprise that was incubated by D-Lab’s Scale-Ups program. In the last week of the trip, we also met up with Mine and Paula, who were working on an evaluation framework for Zasaka. 

Our work was centered around three projects for which we had been preparing throughout the fall semester:

  • leading a customer discovery workshop for local makers and entrepreneurs at the IDIN Kafue Innovation Center
  • working with Robert Shimaingo to improve the design of his hydroelectric turbine
  • leading a co-design workshop with Zasaka for the farmers of Pwata Village

For me, the completely immersive experience of living, working, and travelling with my teammates and our partners is what made the trip incredible. I gained so much insight into the culture and a more meaningful understanding of the issues we explored in class by experiencing the way of life and challenges our partners’ face firsthand, as well as by working through the customer discovery and co-design processes together. 

Furthermore, it was inspiring to see the local  solutions our partners have designed within their cultural context and the determination with which they carry them out to overcome their resource constraints. I really enjoyed getting to know everyone and seeing their idiosyncrasies come through by sharing in the mundane together. I know the trip would not have been the adventurous learning experience that it was had it not been for the awesome people on our team and our warm, welcoming, lively friends in Zambia. 

Customer Discovery Workshop @ Kafue Innovation Center

After being picked up at the airport by Lulu of NTBC, our invaluable facilitator throughout the trip, we drove from Lusaka to the Kafue Innovation Center to meet our host families with whom we would also be working for the week. After a night of rest with our families in Zambia Compound, we got straight to work the next day, finishing planning the customer discovery workshop and beginning work on the gearbox of Robert’s hydroelectric turbine. Just one of the many complex machines Robert Shimaingo has built, the turbine is intended to power a freezer so that fishermen’s catch can keep long enough to be transported and sold in local markets. Robert hopes that one day the turbine can even electrify the fishing village near which it is submerged. 

Sixteen innovators from all around Zambia attended the workshop which was held from Wednesday through Saturday. Each day we focused on a different step of the customer discovery process, which helps entrepreneurs achieve product-market fit by exploring all potential customers, learning more about them through interviews (i.e. their needs and desires, how they make purchasing decisions, etc.), picking a target customer, concretely defining how their product offers value, and then testing how much the customer values the product.

The participants were placed into 4 teams, each of which worked on one of four example products, applying the concepts and tools covered in instruction through field work, discussion, and team presentations. Through the lens of the innovators products, we learned more about some of the issues that arise in daily life for many Zambians. For example, as a solution to the risk of getting burned that many women face when placing pots directly on charcoals or balancing them between the rocks of a three-stone fire to cook, Lesley designed an adjustable pot holder. Another participant created Dissolupit, a chemical powder treatment for pit latrines that when poured into the pit, compacts the accumulated waste and eliminates odors, thereby extending the lifespan of the latrine and delaying the need to dig another pit. 

The workshop was a great collaborative process and learning experience for everyone involved- us, the  Zambian innovators, and even Kafue community members. We celebrated its successful completion and my 21st birthday with a big cookout at Stephen’s house. As much as we loved all the n’shima we were eating, the staple food made by boiling ground maize and water, we decided to give our hosts a taste of stir-fry!

Robert’s Hydroelectric Turbine Gearbox Installation on the Kafue River

Outside of the workshop, preparation of the gearboxes for installation on the turbine was finished! At the start of the second week, we travelled to Mazabuka where we would stay while working on the turbine. After a bumpy, two-hour van ride from Mazabuka, we arrived at a small, secluded fishing village that became an island when the river flooded. Robert Shimaingo's turbine was stationed right off the banks of the river where the village was situated, and many hands helped carry the near 400lb gearbox onto a boat to bring it there. It only took a few hours in the blistering sun to get the turbine up and running with the improved gearbox. Part of the team returned the following day to make final checks and ensure everything was running smoothly. 

Then we travelled to Lusaka before taking an eight hour bus ride to Chipata, our base for the next week!

Co-Design Workshop with Zasaka in Pwata Village

Upon arriving in Chipata, we were greeted by pouring rain and a cheery Sunday Silungwe, co-founder of Zasaka! We spent a relaxing few days in the home/office of Zasaka preparing for the Co-Design Workshop we were to lead in the farming village of Pwata, in the wonderful company of Carl, also co-founder of Zasaka, James, Simba (the dog), and Zuba (the cat). 

We would be joined for the five-day workshop by many of the curriculum discovery participants, and we all stayed in the homes of several families in the village. In the mornings, we would help our host families with work on the farm and chores around the house. Then, after lunch with all the workshop participants, we led the co-design workshop. The design challenge was to improve farmers’ access to high capital equipment, such as ploughs, oxen, sprayers, and herbicides. Each of the five teams chose to focus on a specific type of equipment. In order to identify the causes underlying poor access to equipment and select one problem framing for which to generate solutions, each team drew upon their collective knowledge and conducted interviews. Then, each team brainstormed potential solutions to their problem framing and prototyped the most promising one. The workshop concluded with final team presentations, during which all participants received feedback on how they can improve their prototypes and take their solutions forward after the workshop. 

I learned so much about the inputs, equipment, and processes involved with farming, the market for crops, as well as how farmers decide when and who to sell to, and how this affects their budgeting. My appreciation for the business, science, and physical practice of farming only grew during our time in Pwata. 

We also had a truly rare and incredible cultural experience, albeit for a tragic reason. The son-in-law of Tiffany and my host parents passed early the morning after we arrived. We were a part of the mourning, grave digging, and funeral, all of which took place over the course of those three days. On the day of the funeral, no one went out to the farms . There were at least 1,000 people in attendance, from Pwata as well as the 10 surrounding villages. 

Cruising the Kafue River, Dancing, and Leopard Spotting

Amidst working on our projects throughout the trip, we found ways to enjoy ourselves, too. The day following the end of the customer discovery workshop, we took our host families from the Innovation Center on a boat cruise on the Kafue River. We all got so excited when we sighted the eyes and snouts of nearly 8 hippopotamuses above the water!

On our second night at the Zasaka house, someone started playing music, which spontaneously transformed the living room into an international dance circle, with Paula teaching the salsa, Mine teaching belly dancing, me teaching bhangra, John and Sunday teaching the popular Zambian dance style, and Natalie teaching various American line dances. No one was spared the embarrassment of sharing their moves. It was a night no one will forget, because, well, there are videos …

After finishing the co-design workshop and returning from Pwata, we made a weekend trip to South Luangwa National Park to go on a safari! We were a lucky bunch and saw every animal whose sighting is coveted, despite it being the off-season, including zebras, lions, giraffes, hyenas, elephants, antelope, and leopards, just to name a few!


Testing a handcycle in Indonesia

By Christina Eilar, MIT '16





Traveling to Indonesia with students from D-Lab: Development and D-Lab: Mobility, our project was to gain some user feedback on a hand-pedaled tricycle design for Free Wheelchair Mission, an NGO planning to begin production and distribution of tricycles in the developing world. RUK is a wheelchair provider in the city of Yogyakarta with physical therapist staff for proper fittings and to train new users. They are a local organization under United Cerebral Palsy Wheelchairs for Humanity (in bahasa indonesia, UCP Rota Untuk Kemanusiaan) and the people at RUK were wonderful hosts and we were incredibly fortunate to have their support.

To connect with trike testers, we worked closely with Sri, one of the RUK staff. Sri is disabled and a wheelchair user, and she set up appointments for us with people who already used trikes so we could elicit feedback on the new design as compared to existing products. Over the course of our trials, we heard a few times our testing prototype was better than the trike they were using, which was nice to hear. We also came away with useful critiques of specific features, so overall the user testing went well, though not as expected. 

To begin with, we did not test with the prototype the D-Lab: Mobility students put together during the fall semester, but with a factory prototype from the organization itself. This was a good improvisation, and we could more confidently test the design knowing the test prototype shipped to us in Indonesia was exactly as it would be shipped all over the world. A less positive adjustment we had to make during the project was with the quantitative data from our user testing and interviews. Delaying the testing to wait for the factory prototype cost valuable time and restricted the amount of clients we were able to see. Further qualifying a small pool of feedback, the clients we interviewed had a wide variety in ability and lifestyle, and we also had a different location to work with on each visit, so we were not able to give numerical data as hoped with our critiques and recommendations to the organization on the prototype design.

Seeing a diverse range of disability made the trip a much more personal experience, for all that it compromised any lofty aspirations of a concise statistical evaluation. The truth is, there are a variety of circumstances that might make a handcycle useful to someone and it is hard to gauge design calibration for a normal user, because a normal user profile needs to somehow encompass an amputee on crutches, a polio survivor who can walk short distances, and someone with cerebral palsy, while also account for the functionality within the normal challenges and normal situations of this so-called normal lifestyle.

One of the women we met ran a business making and selling peanut and spinach chips. At the points in her delivery cycle where the road is too steep for her trike, she calls her husband and he can drive up real quick, tug the trike up from his motorbike, then goes back to work. They make it work. Another woman spent five hours one morning pedaling to a nearby city, occasionally stopping to pour water on the trike wheels to keep the shape from deforming in the heat. 

Working with Sri was a constant inspiration, and I can’t imagine the project without her translation skills and contacts from being such an active member of the disabled community around Yogyakarta. Sri rides a motorbike, too. It’s modified to accommodate her wheelchair, so she can roll up on a constructed side attachment to the bike body, and the steering column is shifted to her position alongside the engine with hand control adjustments. The motorbike is covered in stickers from cities with all sorts of exotic names you recognize from vacation blogs and coffee brands that are mementos from long road trips she takes across the islands of Indonesia with her motorcycle community friends. While Sri is disabled and doesn’t have normal mobility, she is positively abnormal for all sorts of remarkable virtues.

Ideally, the impact from the feedback we got can trickle back to RUK eventually, with their mission to situate clients with the best product for their individual lifestyle. When Free Wheelchair Mission launches the final design it will be another option for a certain type of able-bodied human and facilitate all sorts of people going places.

D-Lab Design for Scale students work on mobile solar-powered ATM in India

By McCall Huston MIT '16

Ola Kalinowska visiting a Bangalore slum.

Design for a mobile solar powered ATM.

McCall Huston at work in the SELCO office, Bangalore, India.




Over this past January, Ola Kalinowska (Mechanical Engineering, Class of 2016) and I (also Mechanical Engineering, Class of 2016) travelled to India after having taken D-Lab Design for Scale in the fall and participating in the MIT Undergraduate Giving Campaign. We spent our time in the South of India, in the city of Bangalore, working with a group called the SELCO Foundation. The SELCO foundation works with partner communities to serve those in need. They are driven to improve lives and create a sustainable world, often implementing renewable energy solutions. 

Enabling access to government subsidies

When Ola and I arrived, we had initially been planning to work on a water-sanitizing project, but were switched to a project helping to design a mobile solar powered ATM due to a time constraint on that project. After a lot of conversations with those who work at SELCO and a bit of research on our own, we both realized that building this mobile solar powered ATM could help give banking access to large numbers of people who had never had it before, and that access could very seriously impact their lives.

Often, individuals in rural villages do not have access to banking and must travel very long distances to reach banking services. This barrier means that they often go without. Because the government gives out subsidies through the banks only, many people who desperately need the subsidies are unable to obtain them. Having a truck—one that could travel long distances—equipped with an ATM and a bank teller window with basic banking functions available would allow families living in rural villages to access the money that they need. 

Designing the mobile solar-powered ATM

Once we had a clear understanding of the need and the use cases for the project, we set out to help design the product. We met with the project lead and got a sense of where the project was and what the Bank of India had in mind when they planned this project. We laid out a list of constraints, areas for improvement, additional features to add, and began to sketch out initial designs and brainstorm potential mechanisms to raise and lower the solar panels.

We individually came up with ideas, chose the best of them all, drew up some initial CAD designs and presented them to the project lead. After working with him on a few different designs and mechanisms, we identified the best one and came up with detailed designs, full CAD drawings and renderings, and a full list of specific parts that need to go into the project. By the time we left, we had built from scratch a full design for SELCO and had a clear vision for where the project should progress.

Field visit to Bangalore slum

In addition to the work on the mobile solar powered ATM, we also got to go on a field visit with one of the project coordinators at SELCO. We visited a slum on the edge of Bangalore where SELCO had implemented a solar light rental system through a community partner. We were able to spend some time in the slum and get a better understanding of how the people there live and also how impactful something as simple as light can be to their lives. This community visit really gave us a strong sense of the direct impact that SELCO can have and the importance of some of the principles they follow. Overall, Ola and I had an amazing trip; it was both very fun and exciting to explore a new country while at the same time fulfilling to know that we were able to contribute to a project that can significantly improve peoples lives.

D-Lab Student January Fieldwork: El Salvador!

by Samir Wadhwania, MIT '18

Learning to use a hammer.

Barefoot angels with their heat sealers.

Samir teaches welding.

Making cement for the well renovation.

Well repairs.

Alan learns to do his laundry.

Sketch for the bicilavadora.

Alan with the welded bicilavadora.




Starting the new year with adventure and ambition, I had the amazing opportunity to spend three weeks in Santa Ana, El Salvador as a part of MIT's D-Lab: Development class. I was joined by fellow classmates Alan and Clarissa, D-Lab instructor and education coordinator Libby Hsu, as well as  D-Lab El Salvador team members from ealier years, Elaine and Kate. Together, we represented a variety of backgrounds and experiences we were excited to share with ASAPROSAR, the NGO we'd be working with during our stay.

Preparing for the trip, we separated it into two parts. First, we were asked to continue working with los Angeles Descalzos, or the Barefoot Angels program, as we had before. Barefoot Angels is a children's program run by ASAPROSAR in the city; D-Lab has worked with them previously, teaching them how to make soap and shampoo to sell in the local market. This year, we continued the project by teaching them to build heat sealers to package their products themselves.

Second, we planned to spend two weeks at a homestay in the nearby town of El Coco and work in the village of El Sauce. There, we would be working with women to assess and tackle problems faced by the community members. We hoped to use Creative Capacity Building to inspire the residents of El Sauce to continue working to fix their problems long after we left.

Our first encounter with Pupusas

Once we arrived in El Salvador, we were immediately whisked away to experience the wondrous food known as pupusas. Highly customizable and surprisingly simple, pupusas would come to be our go-to food of choice around the country (but no one complained).

More important, after a long drive in the bed of a pickup truck that would come to represent the majority of our travel experience, we arrived at ASAPROSAR. Wasting no time at all, we had several meetings discussing our goals for the next three weeks and what we would need to accomplish all of our goals. The very next day, we bought materials and began planning for the week ahead of us.

Barefoot Angels

The first week was spent with the Barefoot Angels. Because of school, we had a separate morning session and an afternoon session every day. We started with a crash course on electronics and incorporated activities to explain concepts like voltage and current. At one point, Libby (a resistor) was attempting to stop children (electrons) running past her to explain the idea of resistance. I think the children got the point—even if they didn't, at least we all shared a laugh.

Moving forward, we had kids as young as seven years-old operating tools such as hammers and saws building the heat sealers! The construction of the heat sealer saw some minor road bumps—we needed better glue and better electronics. With help from the children, we were able to find materials nearby and build a working heat sealer with both the morning and afternoon groups. It was exciting to see the final product that the kids had sawed, glued, screwed, and soldered to create.

Well repair  

The following week, we made our way to Niña Berta's house where we would be staying on weekdays. Initially, we did some research for a solar lantern project run by ASAPROSAR and visited families in the village of El Sauce. However, we soon organized a community meeting to determine what we wanted to work on as a team. The women identified two main problems—protecting their water supply and washing clothes.

We discovered that the well from which people obtained water every morning had a lot of room for improvement. The “well” was essentially an above-ground basin that stored the flowing groundwater nearby. The basin was small and overflowed regularly. It lacked an effective cover to prevent trash and animals from falling in. During the rainy season, chemical-mixed water from crop fields would runoff into the water.

Working together, we came up with several plans to improve the situation: we built up the height of the walls to retain more water. Sheet metal was placed over the top of the well to protect it from the elements. A new wall was built to divert runoff water away from the water supply. Finally, we installed a faucet to allow people to obtain water. It was impressive to see how dedicated everyone was to protecting the well - we had men and women offering ideas and working together to do something incredible.

And washing machines: bicilavadora II

The second project was to ease the process of washing clothes for women. Many women (and young girls!) spent up to two and half hours a day, several days per week washing clothes. We decided to build a washing machine that operated with bicycle power. D-Lab students had build a bicycilce-powered laundry machine—the bicilavadora—in 2009 in Peru and we decided to iterate on this design. We had many obstacles to overcome for this project—most of them being limitations in supplies and tools. Whenever we came to a roadblock, however, someone would throw out an idea and we eventually come to finishing the machine on the very last day in El Sauce. The nature of the project led to many tasks being done in parallel—building a basket, welding a frame, attaching a bicycle—so it was amazing to see it all come together at the end and see it in action.

Baby goats and volcanoes

While we did a lot of great work, we definitely found time to explore and enjoy what was a brand new experience for many of us. We hiked down a caldera and swam in the crater lake, and we also tried our hand at surfing on a beautiful beach. We made our own pupusas and tried french fries dipped in mayo for the first time. Whether we were in the city enjoying the colors and cuisine, or the countryside playing with baby goats and climbing trees, we all found something magical on our trip. As for the future, Alan and I plan on going back over the summer to continue working with our new friends in El Sauce.

Hasta luego,


The First Five Toilets Of Many: Piloting SANILAB in Quebrada Verde, Perú

by Kate Mytty, D-Lab: Waste Co-Instructor and 2016 D-Lab Perú Trip Leader

Quebrada Verde.

SANILAB toilet and sanitation system developed through the collaboration between Dlab Perú and Quebrada Verde.

Teresa testing different materials for odor-control.

Processing plant.

Team member Jahnavi carrying a 20 liter bucket.


As an urban planner passionate about city services and infrastructure (waste, water, energy, sanitation, etc), the D-Lab: Development trip to Perú this past January was an exciting chance to  explore that passion while working with a smart group of people from Quebrada Verde, Péru and D-Lab Perú. From MIT, we were a group of seven, including six engineers and me (the urban planner). 

The project: SANILAB - a portable, dry toilet

The project evolved from a collaboration between the Quebrada Verde community, located an hour outside of Lima, and D-Lab Perú, an organization inspired by MIT D-Lab (see blog, IDIN network member designs and launches new course in Peru based on IDDS experience) and initiated in a class at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP). 

The SANILAB project began when, last year, some of the community leaders in Quebrada Verde, a growing community with a population around 3,000 people, had approach D-Lab Perú with an idea to develop a new sanitation system. The goal: to develop another option for sanitation within Quebrada Verde that recognized the contextual, environmental, and human needs of the community. 

When working in Quebrada Verde, we found that there are two current sanitation solutions: 1) pit-latrine (with many variations on its design depending on the household); 2) septic tank. Several people had mentioned that it was unlikely that a larger-scale sewage system would be built in the next decade. SANILAB, which is both the toilet and the sanitation system developed through the collaboration between Dlab Perú and Quebrada Verde, offered a new sanitation option. (See photo at left.)

We started working with the D-Lab Perú team as they were piloting the first five toilets with five Quebrada Verde households. Our role was to help with the installation, get feedback from households and aid in the ongoing development of the waste collection system. 

The iterative process espoused by efforts like IDEO’s Human Centered Design and Lean Start-Up influenced a lot of our work. Over our three weeks in Perú, we conducted a lot of experiments, built a collection box for the sanitation system, interviewed the users of the toilets, developed a series of recommendations for the systems and learned to cook Peruvian food. 

Some of the questions we explored were: 

What is the appropriate material to use to reduce the feces odor? 

Our material scientist, Teresa Defigueiredo, led this research. As the SANILAB is a dry toilet, meaning that urine and feces are separated to prevent fermentation and also allow each material to be processed separately. Frequently, sawdust is used as an odor-cover for feces and spread on feces after each toilet use. Our question was whether there were other materials that could be used to cover the odor and provide different benefits in the fertilizer process. In conducting the test, we found that pig feces had a lot of similarities to human feces -- which made it an easy material to test different materials with. 

2. What are potential design alternatives for waste collection plant and the needs for the processing plant? 

At present, the SANILAB process a depends on families depositing their waste to a neighborhood processing plant, where it would be transformed to fertilizer for sale in the market. Lauren Bustamante and Tim Lu spearheaded the effort to explore different design constraints and considerations for a deposit box (pun intended!) and for the processing plant. Collectively, we made a first iteration of the deposit box to be used for the initial deposits. 

3. What can we learn from experiments and household feedback that can inform future design considerations for the toilet and system? 

In its pilot stage, people were excited about SANILAB and testing it out. The SANILAB team has consistently tried to take an iterative approach to the design of the system and toilet, in order to best serve the context. 

During our time in Quebrada Verde, we spent a lot of time considering what elements to consider in the next iteration. The three weeks spent working in Quebrada Verde gave us time to get to know many of Quebrada Verde’s residents and the resources in town. Emma Castaños helped document a lot of the insights gained from interviews conducted with households and general reflections on the resources and environmental context in QV. 

Jahnavi Kalpathy explored the entire system through a health and safety lens. One of the many questions she explored was what health and safety considerations should be taken into consideration for families traveling with their deposits to the plant site. For a day, we saw Jahnavi walking throughout the community carrying 20 liter buckets everywhere she went!—to give her a chance to test the distance and terrain from the five households to the plant. 

The findings from our work in Quebrada Verde shaped design recommendations for future iterations developed with D-Lab Perú and Quebrada Verde about the toilet and the sanitation system. While we ended up working on the sanitation project in a last minute work shift, we all enjoyed learning more about city systems and explore how they can be designed to complement the need for flexibility, affordability and user needs. 

Crocheting with recycled plastic with the D-Lab: Development Team Tanzania!

by Pelumi Botti, Senior at Wellesley College, majoring in International Relations & History

Pelumi Botti.

Melting plastic bags.

Working with community members.

Crocheting with plastic.

Crocheting with community members. Trip co-leader Nani Ruiz at right.

Final product!

This past January, six members of the MIT D-Lab: Development class travelled to Arusha, Tanzania to work on a plastic bag waste management project. We had a wide diversity of cultures represented in our team with students of Argentinian, Ethiopian, Spanish, Chinese and Nigerian heritages. Our main partners were Echo East Africa Impact Center (ECHO) and Twende workshop.

We were asked to continue a project that entailed melting plastic bags in sand to produce paving bricks. Unfortunately, the existing project was labor intensive and produced toxic emissions. Our team sought to improve the plastic melting process as well as explore additional ways to recycle plastic bags without chemically altering them. We discovered that there was an existing crocheting tradition in Arusha and so we hoped to present plastic bags as an additional crocheting medium. In preparation for our trip to Tanzania, we conducted research and various experiments on plastic bag melting and crocheting. 

Arrival in Tanzania and Melting Plastic Bags

Upon arrival, ECHO provided us with an orientation, which consisted of a crash course in Swahili and lessons on the history and culture of Tanzania. We then moved to the Twende workshop to begin work on our project. At Twende, we investigated different methods of melting the plastic bags while containing toxic emissions. We melted plastic bags in different mediums including sand, wax, and oil. We also used an oven method to melt the plastic bags. However, with this method it proved difficult to control the temperature and the oven exploded. We eventually settled on the method of melting the plastic bags in cooking oil. The cooking oil kept the melted plastic bags at a constant temperature and thus prevented the release of toxic emissions. We investigated different applications for the melted material and produced different products including a small bench, shoe soles, and jewelry. 

Crocheting Plastic Bags

As Arusha is a tourist town, we hoped to produce a profitable woven plastic product to sell to the tourist market. We also developed a workshop curriculum that encouraged team building and creative design when working with plastic bags. We also discovered a method for cutting the plastic bags into yarn, which we documented in an instruction sheet and translated into Swahili. One team member, Carolyn, crocheted a basket to present to artisans and to our workshops. We led two different workshops with our main participants being women artisans who sold their goods to tourists. At the end of the workshop, participants showcased products they had crocheted from the plastic yarn such as jewelry and bags.

Tribulations and Trials

During the first week and a half of our project, we encountered a number of frustrations and delays. Our VOC sensor that was designed to monitor emissions broke, we struggled to find applications for the plastic melting project and a number of planned meetings with community members fell through. There was always the anxiety that we would be unable to make significant progress on our project as time was definitely not on our side. These frustrations unfortunately affected our team dynamics and thus during the first week there was a tension among us.

Victories and Moving Forward

One of our greatest achievements was getting to understand each other better as a team. Holding regular team meetings and having meals together, enabled us to learn about each other’s backgrounds and learn to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Accepting disappointment was also a big step for us. It enabled us to identify realistic parameters for our projects, document our steps and thus leave the project in a state that others could pick up from. As a result, Baraka, a student from the Arusha Technical College will continue work on the plastic-oil bricks and test their durability. In addition, previous participants from our crocheting workshop, staff members from Twende and Fernando, one of our team leaders who remained in Tanzania, co-led a crocheting workshop for 70 women after we left. Fernando and Twende are now exploring market opportunities for the crocheted products. 

Food and fun

We discovered a breakfast joint close to the Twende workshop, with the yummiest chapatti and chai. We ate there every morning and on our last day the owner, Mama Jacqueline, graciously offered to teach us how to make chapattis. We always ate lunch with our friends at the workshop--it was a wonderful opportunity to get to know them. Most of the time, we chose to eat dinner at one of the local restaurants where we enjoyed the finest Arusha cuisine such as Nyama Choma and Chips Mayayi. In our downtime, we explored local markets, hiked to a waterfall, danced to Swahili Hip Hop at a concert, and visited the homes of local friends. A couple of us also went on safari to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which was a real treat.


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