D-Lab Development

D-Lab: Design = AWESOME

by Amy Christina Gouws

D-Lab: Design students and instructors. Spring 2018.

"Not only did we get time to practically apply the design concepts that were taught in class, but when doing so, the projects were real-world projects. This made our contribution tangible and not just a theoretical application.”


I joined the D-Lab: Design class for a hands-on design experience. I found it to be this and way more than I could ever expect. Not only did we get time to practically apply the design concepts that were taught in class, but when doing so, the projects were real-world projects. This made our contribution tangible and not just a “theoretical application.”

I am an exchange student from South Africa. By using the experience that I have in outside the US, it was interesting to see the reactions to many of the problems discussed in class. I am studying mechanical engineering at the University of Pretoria and am at MIT for a year. As part of the requirements for my home university, I had to take a design class. The D-Lab class concept intrigued me and so finding a class that met the requirement was fantastic!

The D-Lab: Design Voya Sol team.


I was part of the Voya Sol team that included me, Felipe Monsalve, Emily Tang, Elizabeth Bianchini, and Alaisha Alexander. We tackled the problem of designing a user interface for a solar box, in which solar panels power up USB ports for charging and power outlets. The group that we worked with was Voya Sol (the inspiration for our team name!), a start-up formed by two graduate students at MIT and Stanford, Prosper Nyovanie and Caroline Jo. The project is intended for residents of Zimbabwe that have little or no access to electricity in their area. In contrast to similar projects available in the market, this project wants to make the system expandable and will eventually aim to make the system a miniature electrical grid for the community.



Prosper Nyovanie (MIT Mechanical Engineering graduate student) of Voya Sol with an early prototype in Zimbabwe.


The design of an interface is not a typical design problem for the D-Lab: Design class as typically, more mechanical problems are found for this class. However, a basic interface was needed with LEDs and some signage. And, working in a community with limited literacy and a very different frame of reference to symbolic meanings was an interesting challenge. We had to consider what would relay the message of the indicators as effectively as possible. This led to an indication system incorporating basic phone symbols and LEDs indicating if something has been connected and the level of charge of both the internal and external batteries and the solar panels charging. Designing the interface included work with a laser cutter, vinyl cutter, lots and lots of glue, soldering, and Arduino work. Further work on this project would include testing the prototypes in the field and taking the box from a prototype to a more robust device. 

The prototypes.


This was a class where I was given the opportunity to work and play with the equipment that I had learned about not just for a personal project, but to advance an important goal for a social start-up seeking to increase electricity access in Zimbabwe. This proved to be a great learning experience and a fun class to be part of!

I thoroughly enjoyed my semester in the class and working with the instructors Sorin Grama, Jerome Arul, as well as with Teaching Assistant Pushpa Prabakar and D-Lab Workshop Manager Jack Whipple. They not only taught the class the theoretical knowledge of the subject matter and processes, but also filled the lessons with experience from their own projects, the lessons they had learned, and the challenges they had to overcome in the process. This practical knowledge was highly beneficial and not something that can be learned from a textbook!

D-Lab: Design Instructors Sorin Grama (center back), Jerome Arul (center front), Teaching Assistant Pushpa Prabakar (left) and D-Lab Workshop Manager Jack Whipple (right). 

Report from D-Lab: Development, Team Guatemala : January D-Lab Student Fieldwork

by Neha Rajbhandary, D-Lab: Development Fall '17, Wellesley College '20 

Julia and UVG student Maya work with Maria and Rosa on stage 3 of the workshop. manipulating cardboard cutouts to determine ideal size of cookstove.

"The plancha served as a hub for the family, and was a source of joy. Its presence and value was something that we wanted to preserve in whatever we created. The importance of conserving traditional styles and cooking methods, and not disrupting traditional behavior was of primary importance to us."


In January 2018, a group of five D-Lab: Development students travelled to Santa Catarina, Guatemala to follow up on projects from IDDS sustainable homes, more specifically examine local cookstoves  and cooking practices. Natalie Nicolas (MIT’18), Julia Cha (MIT’18), Cayanne Chachati (Harvard ‘20), Ghada Amer (Harvard ’20), and Neha Rajbhandary (Wellesley ’20) were accompanied by trip teader Charlotte Fagan for this trip. The team primarily collaborated with community partner Link4. 

Santa Catarina, Palopo

After arriving in Guatemala City, our team left for our main location for the trip early in the morning the next day. We set out for Santa Catarina Palopo, which is a small scenic town on the banks of one of Guatemala’s most beautiful volcanic Lake’s: Lake Atitlan. On the banks of  Lake Atitlan are small towns of indigenous Guatemalans, where each town has its own vibrant culture, tradition, and identity. This massive lake is surrounded by hills and towering volcanoes. Omar and Oscar, the co-founders of our community partner Link4 had good relations with the community in Santa Caterina after IDDS Sustainable Homes

Team member Natalie & Link4 Co-Founder Omar Crespo work with community members on stage 3 of the workshop manipulating cardboard cutouts to determine ideal size of cookstove.



We were introduced to the host families that we would be living with for the next two and a half weeks that we would be there. Our first week in Santa Caterina was almost spent entirely with our host families. This was the first stage of our entire project: information gathering, and cultural immersion. That entire week, our sleeping schedules had aligned with our host families. We woke up and slept the same time as them. We helped them prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner, ate all three meals with them, and cleaned up after with them. Throughout the week, we tried to perfect our tortilla making skills. 

We discovered that families use a number of cooking systems together, including open fires, the plancha or improved cookstove, and the gas stove. We observed their cooking styles, and asked them various questions to supplement the information we had gathered through observation. The main reason we engaged in this immersive process was because we were trying to modify a gasifier cookstove: a new cleaner burning technology primarily built for African countries. The modifications were necessary so that the current gasifier cookstove could easily accommodate the cooking styles and traditions of people living in Santa Caterina. We were realizing that technological change came with heavy implications. The plancha served as a hub for the family, and was a source of joy. Its presence and value was something that we wanted to preserve in whatever we created. The importance of conserving traditional styles and cooking methods, and not disrupting traditional behavior was of primary importance to us.  

Community leaders Rosa and Maria try out cardboard prototype.


Observations and casual conversations alone didn’t seem like enough for us to start synthesizing information for our prototyping phase. To get more specific information regarding cooking habits, we conducted a workshop with a few local women using a storytelling cube: one of Link4’s creations. We also conducted short surveys with a variety of people in Santa Caterina. To get more information, we also had a few interactive posts set up in the town square. 


The team working on synthesizing and analyzing the information gathered using design-thinking strategies.


After the collection process, we synthesized the information to find three key characteristics that the cookstove we would design would need to have: it should be capable of making tortillas, cooking with multiple pots simultaneously, and keeping food warm. We then brainstormed ideas and sketches individually and in groups until we decided to address the needs by creating a pot skirt structure with an air diverter that would direct the heat generated to both a hot spot where you could put pots, a skirt where you could make tortillas, and a warming station where you could warm pots and tortillas. We then got to physically build this model out of metal and prototype our design at the UVF Altiplano campus in Solola. We also built the prototypes out of cardboard which we demonstrated alongside our actual gasifiers in an interactive workshop for the community to get feedback on our designs, as well as get the community’s ideal designs in terms of size and configuration. 


Team members Cayanne and Natalia carrying out tests on the Mimi Moto cookstove with the help of Richard Grinnell - Regional Director of Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.


We left Santa Catarina for Guatemala City for the last three days of the trip, during which we created an hour long final presentation describing D-Lab, our experience, and our project. We then presented for the students at UVG whose class will continue working with Link4 on the project. 


Team members Neha and Julia working together on building initial prototype at the UVG maker-space.


Final Reflections

Leaving Santa Catarina after almost three weeks of intense immersion was difficult for us, because we felt like we had been fully welcomed into our host families homes. Engaging with the community for the project had made us really invested in both the community as well as the project. We left Santa Catarina with a better understanding of how co-creation worked beyond the classroom. Our time in Guatemala was filled with meaningful conversations, sunsets at the lake, coffee, and many tortillas that we got to share with people we enjoyed being around. We will forever be grateful to D-Lab, our community partner Link4, and UVG for their support and most importantly all of Santa Catarina for opening their homes to us. 


Team Guatemala on a weekend trip to Antigua, Guatemala. Missing: Team Leader Charlotte Fagan 

Energy Needs Assessment in Nepal with D-Lab and Kathmandu University

by Anish Paul Antony, Adam Zhao, Lucy Milde, and Jennifer Lu

MIT D-Lab and Kathmandu University team with women from a Village Child Protection Committee (VCPC), Salambu, Nepal.


Earlier this year, the Electrical and Electronics Engineering (EEE) department at Kathmandu University (KU) hosted a group from MIT D-Lab during MIT's January Independent Activities Period. The MIT group was led by D-Lab Postdoctoral Researcher, Anish Paul Antony, and included three MIT undergraduates (Adam Zhao, Lucy Milde, and Jennifer Lu) who took the D-Lab: Development course last fall. The Kathmandu University team was led by Shailendra Jha (Assistant Professor in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, KU) along with one master’s student Bhuwan Paudel and three KU undergraduates from EEE Shanta Aryal, Sandhya Bohara and Prashant Tiwari.

The purpose of the trip was to collaborate with students and staff from Kathmandu University to build capacity in conducting an energy needs assessment in rural Nepal. This work is part of the D-Lab Off-Grid Energy Group's mission to support the development of energy access programs driven by local institutes across rural areas in the developing world. This project was jointly supported by MIT D-Lab, MIT MISTI, and Kathmandu University.

The goal of these assessments is to provide a framework for institutes to identify opportunities where increased access to improved energy-related products and technologies can benefit communities. The assessment was conducted in Salambu and Majhi Feda, Nepal.

The MIT D-Lab and Kathmandu University teams at the energy assessment training conducted by D-Lab's Anish Paul Antony.


The first three days, the MIT team worked with the KU team in Dhulikhel. Anish trained the entire group on the D-Lab Off-Grid Energy Assessment Toolkit. We were split into pairs with one MIT student and one KU student. We learned so much from the KU students not only in terms of their culture but also their experiences as students studying engineering. While our worlds seem very different, there is so much in common between our student experiences back in Cambridge and their experiences as students in Dhulikhel.

Once we felt confident using the tools in the Off-Grid Energy Assessment, we set out to Salambu, which although it is only 40 kilometers from Dhulikhel, took us a good four hours to reach, as the roads were still being constructed. KU has an outreach hospital center in Salambu, which is where we stayed for the rest of our time in Nepal. When we reached Salambu, Shailendra sir from KU wanted the whole team to visit a 29 kilo-watt micro-hydro plant constructed by the World bank 16 years back. This was truly a fascinating experience as we witnessed a turbine in action and learned about electric grid stability, load variations, and compensations involved in balancing the load with electric supply.

Each of the two villages where we conducted the assessment, Salambu and Majhi Feda, have a population in excess of 1,000 people who live in a mountainous terrain along the Himalayas at elevations of approximately 5,000 feet. We began our work by visiting the village head of Salambu to gain permission to conduct field research in the area. We found that the village head had a wealth of knowledge about the energy situation and government and NGO programs in the region. Additionally, we were helped by the KU outreach center’s manager from the community who became our point-person for mapping the stakeholders in the area and identifying individuals at local businesses and civil society organizations for in-depth interviews. 

Adam Zhao and Sandhya Bohara conducting an energy needs assessment with women from Salambu, Nepal.


The KU outreach center’s manager directed us to individuals to interview about household energy issues. The KU students and MIT students were both very interested to learn about D-Lab’s process and how various pieces of information gathered in the assessment could contribute to shaping possible programs that KU could later implement. The entire team conducted the interviews in Nepali. Once we completed data collection in Salambu, we moved to Majhi Feda where the same process was repeated. Freezing temperatures early in the morning and towards sunset kept interfering with our daily plans, but lots of warm cups of Himalayan tea and wai wai noodles kept the entire team motivated. The major focus during the data collection was to identify current energy access and expenditures, aspirational energy needs, supply chain mapping, and stakeholder analysis in the region.

Throughout this entire process Anish led the study design and was also there to answer questions and address doubts we had during the assessment. While our target was households, Anish and Bhuwan focused their attention on shops and local business in the region. They quickly identified that most of the goods and products entering into the community were coming in either from India or China into Dolalghat and from there to Salambu. Identifying this supply chain would help in bringing modern energy services through similar supply chains into Salambu. After collecting data during the day, we spent each night entering the data into the Off-Grid Energy data analysis file both for Salambu and Majhi Feda. 

A resident from Salambu cooking food using forest wood.


Results from the assessment in Salambu and Majhi Feda

After the data collection was completed, the assessment team returned to the outreach center to analyze the data and to start formulating ideas of potential programs that KU and D-Lab could pilot in the region.

The data from the energy assessment in both regions revealed alarming rates of forest-wood being used for household heating and cooking. A majority of the women in Salambu and Majhi Feda spend between two and five hours a day collecting forest wood, and this activity was one of their most time consuming tasks. Furthermore, most homes in this region lacked proper ventilation and used wood stoves or basic three stone fires for cooking which is not only inefficient but also contributed significantly to indoor air pollution. Access to water was a major source of concern especially as some families lived at a significant distance from the water streams, while those who had easier access to water were wasting it due to poor pipe fittings in the villages. 

We also learned that after the earthquake that devastated Nepal in 2015, NGOs  donated a number of small solar home systems to the people but that not everyone in the community was happy with the performance of these solar systems. Some of the systems have started to fail mainly due to maintenance issues. From KU's study of usage patterns of improved cook stoves in the region, we found that increased cooking times when using improved cookstoves (compared to traditional stoves) and the inability to generate enough heat during the winter months have resulted in cookstove stacking (use of multiple stoves).

Over the next couple of weeks, Anish from D-Lab and the KU team will complete the data analysis and engage in project idea generation to pick projects with the highest chance of success. Some probable solutions that make sense based on the data are (1) thermally autonomous passive heating in the Himalayas, (2) solar operated cell phone charger. 

Finally, the entire team would like to thank Professor Bim from Kathmandu University, Professor Jeff from MIT Nepal initiative and Mala Gosh from MISTI India-Nepal!

The MIT D-Lab and Kathmandu University teams.



Report from Sirsi, Karnataka, India

by Caroline Morris, MIT D-Lab Independent Study student, Wellesley '18

Carolne Morris and Pranav conducting an interview with a smallholder woman farmer.


During MIT's January Indepent Activities Period, I traveled with three students from the fall D-Lab: Development class, Viban Gonzales '20, Ellie Simonson '18, and Nikhil Kunapuli '18, and D-Lab Research Associate Megha Hegde to Sirsi, Karnataka, India to conduct an assessment in the surrounding rural villages. The goal of this assessment was to learn about the agricultural practices of smallholder farmers and the issues that they face. We interacted with over 100 smallholder tribal farmers through individual interviews and focus groups, and met with several different local cooperatives that provide services to these farmers.

What we learned

India is one of the largest producers of areca nuts in the world, known locally as betel nuts. According to India’s Ministry of Agriculture, the state of Karnataka produced about 59% of the country’s total crop in the 2015-16 season. During our assessment we found that most of the small farmers in the villages we visited grow rice on their land to feed their families, and work for wages on the betel nut plantations.

Cimber in a betel nut tree. 

The dangers of harvesting betel nuts

In this region there are many areca nut tree plantations that hire skilled climbers to climb the trees and harvest the crop. The trees can grow up to 30 meters tall and are treacherous to climb, even for highly skilled climbers. The most frequent cause of injury and death each harvesting season is trees breaking while climbers are harvesting the nuts. 

One evening, we spoke with a skilled betel nut tree climber named Ravi. Ravi is 25 years old and has been climbing trees since he was about 14. He told us that he has a record in his village for the number of climbing injuries. It was during our conversation with Ravi and the other tree climbers in this village that we learned the main cause of injury and death is the trees breaking. We asked why the climbers fall with the tree and Ravi demonstrated the process of removing the harness while explaining that if a climber was able to remove it in two seconds rather than 30 seconds, he could jump on a nearby tree, avoiding the fall.

Working with Ravi and a group of farmers and betel tream climbers, we considered two approaches: create a technology that eliminates the need for skilled climbers or design a technology to make climbing safer. Our brainstorming revolved around designing a harness that can be quickly removed in an emergency and designing a system that supports the tree to prevent it from falling.

Our conversation with Ravi shows how crucial it is that brainstorming sessions and the design process include the voices and ideas of those who we are trying to help. Without Ravi’s input and involvement, we could have gone down a completely different route when brainstorming solutions. For example, we may have assumed that climbers were slipping off the trees and needed more secure harnesses.

Betel nut farmer.


Water scarcity

In addition to the dangers of betel nut tree climbing, the most prominent issue that caught my attention was water scarcity. Smallholder farmers are currently struggling to grow enough rice crop to feed their families and do not have any crop left over to sell. These farmers own very small amounts of land (an average of two to four acres), so it is imperative that they are able to harvest as much crop as possible. Due to a decline in the amount of rainfall over the past 10 to 15 years and a depleted water table, they are not able to do so. When we asked questions about irrigation, we found that none of the farmers we interviewed had any constant source of irrigation. Their biggest concern was the lack of drinking water in the summer season when their wells dry up. Because of this, irrigation is not their priority. However, if they had some form of irrigation, they could grow more rice and other crops during the dry season.

How do we talk to people about irrigation when they are struggling to find enough water to drink? The truth is that there is no perfect answer. What I have learned at D-Lab is to have no personal agenda other than to gain as much information and insight as possible. Although our study focused on needs related to agriculture, it was productive to have a conversation about drinking water because from it we learned about the extent of the water scarcity issue that affects agricultural production. 

After working with Megha over the past year conducting several different assessments, I have gained a deeper understanding of D-Lab’s mission and how to follow it when conducting interviews. The best piece of advice Megha has given me is also the most simple: have a conversation. When conducting an interview you want to gain trust and learn as much as possible from the interviewee. The way you ask questions has a huge affect on how the interview will go. If it’s too structured you will get short and persuaded responses. If you don’t have any control over the direction of the interview, you will get long responses filled with information you don’t necessarily need. Megha taught me to have a conversation without getting too far off track and to ask follow up questions when the response is unclear or vague.

Conducting an interview.


My experiences

Each trip I make to India with  D-Lab is just as much of a learning experience as the last. Many aspects have become familiar, such as the constant movement of animals and people on the streets, the Indian head-nod, and even the language. I was surprised at how much Hindi I could understand when we were in Uttarakhand, but Karnataka was a different story. Kannada is the language that is spoken in Karnataka, and it is completely different from Hindi. Compared to Hindi, it is spoken faster and is more difficult to decipher.

Karnataka is also a much different climate than Uttarakhand, covered mostly by a tropical jungle. We were able to visit some beautiful waterfalls and rivers, as well as go on a safari through the jungle. Sirsi is also Megha’s hometown, so she took us to the best pani puri shop in town — I am proud to say that I ate street food and did not get sick! Megha also brought us home and introduced us to her family, and of course Honey, her pug.

On our last day in Sirsi, we attended a Puja at Megha’s aunt’s house, which is a Hindu prayer ceremony done in the home to honor the gods and bring good fortune to the family. It was really special to have such a personal experience while in Sirsi. 


MIT team and Megha’s family after the Puja.


Report from D-Lab: Development, Team Botswana: January D-Lab Student Fieldwork

Thabiso Blak Mashaba, founder and CEO of Botswana-based social enterprise These Hands (left front) with members of the D-Lab: Development team and local community members in Kaputura.

Breaking it Down and Building it Up in Botswana

In January 2018, a team of five students from the D-Lab: Development class traveled to D’kar and Kaputura, Botswana for three weeks of project work, relationship building, and cultural experiences. Asli Demir ‘19, Caroline Jordan ‘20, Danielle Gleason ‘20, Rianna Jitosho ‘19, and Veronica LaBelle ‘19, as well as their trip leader, Justin Carrus ‘17, partnered with local organization These Hands founder and community partner Thabiso Blak Mashaba for the trip. 

Our team first traveled to D’kar, where These Hands was host to two International Development Design Summts, IDDS D'Kar 2015 and IDDS Botswana 2016. Over the course of a week and a half, the students worked closely with community members to advance and bring to closure several projects from IDDS 2016. We really enjoyed the collaborative experience and learning about local culture as well as new perspectives on design and engineering from their community partners. 

After a brief stop in Maun, we traveled to Kaputura, where we spent a week focusing on replicating the box bellows they designed over the fall semester with local materials, as well as conducting a needs assessment for the local carpenter. While in Kaputura, we also visited Bana ba Metsi, a boarding school for at-risk youth, where we held a Creative Capacity Building event.

The Details from D’Kar

One project in D’Kar featured a brick press that was unique in that the bricks produced could be used to construct round homes, similar to the traditional rondavel in Botswana. Collaborating with D’kar local Khomsa Sixpence, team members Danielle Gleason and Rianna Jitosho worked to improve the existing design, with a focus on ergonomics and efficiency. The project was brought to the stage where the D’kar Innovation Center can begin to either rent out the press, or begin selling bricks to community members.

Another project focused on generating income for the Innovation Center was the Easy Ncoro Washing Machine. The team improved the functionality and ergonomics of the existing machine, as well as conducting user tests of the machine’s operation and wash power. At the end of the team’s stay in D’kar, the machine was fully functioning and ready to be used by the community.

Danielle 20’ demonstrating the washing machine. 

A third project focused on improving the design of an existing rocket stove, which uses otherwise useless brush as firewood. Firewood is scarce in D’kar, and the project saw significant interest when it was displayed at a community showcase.   

Asli ‘19 shaping a prototype of the rocket stove.

The final project aimed to simplify the long, labor-intensive process of making beads from ostrich eggshells. The traditional project involves drilling holes and twisting fibers by hand, both of which could cause scarring and pain over time. The team worked on improving a pedal-powered grinding wheel machine, adding a drill with an adjustable stand and a hook to twist the fibers, to remove the sources of injury.

At the end of their time in D’kar, the team hosted several classes from the local primary school at a community showcase. The primary school students enjoyed seeing the projects, and several even returned to the Innovation Center after school to learn how to use some of the tools.

What’s Kicking in Kaputura

After spending an intermediate day in Maun, the team then travelled to Kaputura, a smaller village up north by the Namibian border and up the Okavango Delta panhandle. This was the third D-Lab visit to the village, and thus a large focus of the team’s visit was on making a bellows with Michael, the local blacksmith, whose setup involved crouching on the ground and using a bellows that didn’t efficiently provide airflow to his fire. Team members Veronica ‘19 and Rianna ‘19 built multiple prototypes of a bellows system, adapting the design to two buckets to reduce cost.

Veronica ‘19 and Rianna ‘19 testing the bellows. 

By the trip’s end, they had a completed bellows fitted to his standing forge (built by the D-Lab team January 2017). The new bellows provided continuous airflow, increasing the working temperature of the metal and improving Michael’s setup. Importantly, the new design allowed Michael to begin working while standing. Additionally, the team constructed a foundry able to exceed temperatures of 700°C, allowing them to melt aluminum cans in a crucible and even cast the molten metal in the sand! Michael and the village were ecstatic to have improved conditions as well as the potential to further pursue casting, such as pots and other tools. 

Michael the blacksmith trying out the completed bellows.

The other members of the team worked with the local carpenter to identify potential future projects. The team spent a day going through the process of walking several kilometers through the bush to collect the correct type of wood, splitting the wood, and carving spoons. Several potential paths for future projects were identified, particularly focused on safety equipment for the carpenter. 

During our stay in Kaputura, we took two days away from the village to visit Bana ba Metsi. Bana ba Metsi is a boarding school for at-risk boys aged 13 to 18 who have dropped out of primary school. A major part of the school’s curriculum involves hands-on training. However, their curriculum does not include things like the design process or leave much room for individual expression and creativity. The team visited Bana ba Metsi for a two-day Creative Capacity Buiding workshop, where we introduced the students to the design process, completed design challenges, and toured the campus to identify possible projects. The training culminated in a series of build-its on the second day. 

Journey’s End

At the end of it all, we had successfully completed several projects, allowing for increased potential of income generation technologies in both communities. Reflection led us to not only have a refreshed appreciation for our own privileges, but also to admire the local community members we connected with along the way. 

In addition to project work, we learned how to dig for tubers, make arrowheads, find watering holes from animal tracks, make beads, herd goats, eat cactus fruits, and trap ostriches. We washed our hair in buckets, carried water from taps, and made dinner over the fire. Inside jokes were made, songs were sung, and friendships were forged.

We would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to D-Lab, our community partners, and everyone else who made this trip possible — we are so thankful for the memories and connections made and look forward to following them on what happens next!

Caroline ‘20 working on assembling a drill chuck with Nico. 

Report from D-Lab: Development, Team Colombia: January D-Lab Student Fieldwork

By Milani Chatterji-Len and Emma Rutkowski


From left to right: Mapale, Juan David, Carlitos, Franklin, Johanna, Aura, Scott, Nikki, Milani, Juako, Angela, Jackie, Emily, Aleja, Juan Camilo, Emma.


This January, a group of D-Lab: Development  students, seven MIT students and one Harvard student, traveled to Bogotá, Colombia and the surrounding countryside to work with smallholder coffee farmers on improvements to the coffee production process. Along the way, we were accompanied by Juan David Reins Rozo (aka Juandad), a graduate student from Universidad Nacional in Colombia a Fullbright Fellow at MIT D-Lab, D-Lab: Development teaching assistant and MIT graduate student Johanna Greenspan-Johnson, and members of C-Innova, an innovation center in Colombia with which D-Lab has collaborated for a number of years. Our time there was divided between two communities: Aprenat and Guavio Alto. 


The first community we visited was called Aprenat (Associacion de Protectores de los Recursos Naturales) in the municipality of Tibacuy, an hour outside of Fusagasuga. After traveling along rocky, unpaved roads, we arrived in a lush green area full of small coffee farms and breathtaking mountain views. We received a warm welcome from the coffee farmers and their children, who formed a group called Herederos de la Montana devoted to maintaining the health of the mountain. The first meeting revealed that the community members were fairly united and had strong relationships, but prioritized different parts of the coffee-growing process. Some were interested in producing organic fertilizers, while others wanted to improve mechanization of the process.


Carlitos and Maria, cofounders of Aprenat, showing us the coffee growing process.

When we returned to Aprenat one week later (with half of the group), our project did not directly relate to the coffee growing process. During our first trip, a rainwater harvesting system that had been constructed during an International Development Design Summit (IDDS) caught our eye. We discussed the possibility of making improvements to the system with the community, and then got to work! After a lot of reverse engineering, we realized that there were many parts of the system that did not fit the family’s needs and also identified technical problems. Over the course of the week, we worked to resolve these problems and arrived at a new and improved system.


Reflecting on the rainwater harvesting system after making adjustments.

In Aprenat we also got the chance to visit the local secondary school, a place we were exploring for future rainwater harvesting systems. The students and teachers at the school welcomed us with open arms and lots of fun conversation. Since all of the students at the school live on coffee farms, they take an agriculture class as part of the general curriculum. The agriculture teacher there allowed us to use one of her class periods to teach about water filtration systems, and we discussed the possibility of students leading construction of a rainwater harvesting system in future years with the help of C-Innova.

Guavio Alto

At the start of our second week in Colombia, we made the bumpy ride up the mountain opposite Quinini to Guavio Alto, nestled high above Guavio Bajo. Here, we were greeted by a torrential downpour and Franklin, a smallholder farmer who had participated in the last IDDS in Colombia. Franklin and his family are pretty much all geniuses; although lacking in formal engineering training, Franklin has built several machines himself to automate his coffee production process, and his daughters possess the same drive to learn and create. We spent the next several days learning from them, meeting other smallholder farmers living in the region, taking a stressful crochet lesson with a community member, and listening to MIT team member Franklin make a lot of jokes. By the end of our first visit we had identified several projects with the community that held potential to be pursued further.


Helping Franklin plant spinach.

The next week, Franklin, Scott, Jackie, and Emma returned to Guavio Alto, focusing our attention on the three projects we deemed could most realistically see progress within our limited time frame. This included building a second prototype of a coffee selection machine Franklin had previously designed and built but which wasn’t functioning correctly, automating his coffee roasting machine, and holding workshops with the community on simple soil tests they could perform to improve their growing process. By the end of the week, after a lot of trial and error, machines breaking and being rebuilt, and coffee drinking, we had working prototypes of a coffee selection machine and arduino setup to automatically control the temperature curve inside a coffee roasting machine, as well as a lot of new knowledge on soil quality and testing. 


Franklin working on the coffee selection machine.

Final reflections

Our trip in Colombia was filled with beautiful nature: the fertile, mountainous landscape is something that we will never forget. No sooner will we forget the amazing food we ate along the way — arepas, empanadas, cheese on top of cheese, every type of soup, and copious amounts of tinto (the Colombian term for coffee). The people we met from C-Innova and Aprenat and Guavio Alto were truly amazing, and we have them to thank for such an exciting and productive journey. We would like to maintain our connection with C-Innova and the two communities to establish strong relationships and the potential for future projects.

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.



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