D-Lab Development

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.

D-Lab: Development - Botswana 2015 (video!)

Pooja Jethani, the videograher and editor of this video about D-Lab: Development/Botswana



As part of the MIT D-Lab: Development class, six students traveled to Botswana in January. 

Pooja Jethani, '15, one of the students on the trip and the maker of this wonderful video says, "We had the opportunity to stay at the University of Botswana and work with the Department of Water Affairs in Gabarone.We taught the staff how to improve their charcoal burning process and confirmed these improvements using water boil tests. We then stayed in D'kar for a week, spending our nights in both Kuru and at homestays. There, we held Creative Capacity Building trainings at the local church to teach community members the design process. We ended our journey in Seronga, talking with EcoExist members about their organization and how D-Lab can get involved."

Team members from MIT included Callie McRee, Jorlyn Le Garrec, Justin Carrus, Pooja Jethani, Sally Miller, and Wajeeha Ahmad and trip leaders: Amy Smith and Madeline Hickman.

D-Lab: Development addresses issues of technological improvements at the micro level for developing countries—in particular, how the quality of life of low-income households can be improved by adaptation of low cost and sustainable technologies. Students form project teams to partner with mostly local level organizations in developing countries.

D-Lab: Development - Peru 2015 (video!)

Chheangkea Ieng, the videograher and editor of this video about D-Lab: Development/Peru




As part of the MIT D-Lab: Development class, six students traveled to Peru in January to collaborate with peers from Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) on sustainable housing and energy projects for the village Rayampampa. Teams of students worked remotely throughout the semester running lab experiments and building prototypes in preparation for field work. Projects included innovative designs for improved cookstoves and study of a local tall grass material for housing insulation. Chheangkea Ieng '17 put together this wonderful video about their experience.

Team members from MIT included Pedro Cuellar-Reynolds (trip leader), Heather Beem (trip leader), Langston Fitts, Johanna Greenspan-Johnson, Chheangkea Ieng, Sade Nabahe, Khanh Nguyen, and Cali Warner. Participants from Peru included UTEC professors Julien Noel and Samuel Charca and a team of their students

D-Lab: Development addresses issues of technological improvements at the micro level for developing countries—in particular, how the quality of life of low-income households can be improved by adaptation of low cost and sustainable technologies. Students form project teams to partner with mostly local level organizations in developing countries.

D-Lab: Development - El Salvador 2015 (video!)

Victoria Tam (left), the videograher and editor of this video about D-Lab: Development/El Salvador.




As part of the MIT D-Lab: Development class, four students went to El Salvador in January 2015. They created hands-on workshops to empower the children from the Barefoot Angels program to improve their personal and economic lives. Victoria Tam '16 put togther this wonderful video about projects she and her team members worked on.

D-Lab: Development addresses issues of technological improvements at the micro level for developing countries—in particular, how the quality of life of low-income households can be improved by adaptation of low cost and sustainable technologies. Students form project teams to partner with mostly local level organizations in developing countries.

IAP Insights: Student Takeaways from D-Lab: Development Trips

by Fernando Ruiz (Mechanical Engineering '16), Holly Josephs (Civil and Environmental Engineering '16), and Elana Ben-Akiva (Biological Engineering '15)



Each year during MIT's Independent Activities Period (IAP), D-Lab classes send more than 50 students to the field to put into practice what they've learned throughout the semester. Each year, students come back with stories of eye-opening experiences and encounters. In this post, three students share some of what they learned through working with locals, dealing with cost constraints, and living and interacting with people in their partner communities.

Fernando Ruiz - Uganda:

While on my trip, I enjoyed working together with the locals to complete our building projects. At first it was very hard to keep up with them due to their skill at using hammers, saws, and general knowledge on building. After a couple of days I learned how to use these tools and gained valuable insights on how to be resourceful. The people we were working with impressed me in the way they used their limited and poor quality materials. They knew how to conserve their resources while working around the flaws of their building materials. I also learned the value in my resources at MIT. Here, I have workshops filled with power tools and supply rooms filled with building materials. Working under limited conditions forced me to improvise and to innovate solutions. I learned so much from the people I was working and respected them all as engineers and innovators.

Another fundamental part of the trip was the genuine hospitality that was shown toward the group in every place that we visited. Wherever we went we were greeted with open arms and exclamations of joy. I expected to feel slightly uncomfortable meeting new people because I looked and felt like such an outsider. I was pleasantly surprised to feel at home wherever I went; it was exciting to be the center of attention everywhere I went. People would want to hear about our thoughts and opinions, our home, and past experiences. They were genuinely curious about the differences in our cultures. I loved learning about Ugandan culture and meeting people that I could become close to regardless of our large differences. On the trip, I learned that it is the differences that we have that make us human.

Holly Josephs - Ghana:

One of the most stand-out incidents happened with a stranger during dinner one night. We were in a restaurant and began to talk with two people at the table next to us. We got to talking about moringa and they couldnʼt stop talking about how they were so happy to have been able to have this opportunity for information exchange because now they will be able to use moringa (which grows in their village but nobody uses) and help their families learn how to use it as well. It felt like someone was confirming that our goals for the project were being achieved.

I felt that I gained a greater understanding of development work in general from the class and the trip. Last year, I had wanted to go to Nepal to work on a water sanitation project. I was not funded to go, but I think that it turned out for the better. I wouldnʼt have known how to be effective. Even now, Iʼm sure Iʼm far from being as effective as I possibly could be in development work. However, I think that comfort with the work/projects is a huge part of it, and comfort only can come from experience. I now feel like I am in a position where I could independently plan and implement a project.

Elana Ben-Akiva – Zambia:

In terms of the actual project work, I learned how little money people in the village actually had to spend. For example, I knew that one of our goals was to make a low cost charcoal stove, but I didn’t realize until we were there that “low cost” essentially meant “no-cost” if we wanted it to be affordable for the people living in the village. Additionally, when we were making a chimney for the kiln, I suggested that we make a removable chimney out of sheet metal, which would make the sealing process easier. However, Robert and Stephen [local Zambian alumni of the most recent International Development Design Summit] informed me that sheet metal was much too expensive for the villagers. We tried to brainstorm other materials but found that the only viable option was to use bricks. I was not expecting that we would be so limited in terms of materials, but I was surprised by what we were able to accomplish using just bricks. Plus, it was rewarding to build something that was ultimately affordable.

I also discovered that you don’t necessarily need to have a formal engineering education in order to be a successful engineer or inventor. In working with Robert and Stephen, I was very grateful for the practical intelligence they brought to the project and the innovative design ideas they came up with, especially when it came to reducing costs and finding ways to recycle different materials. I’m not sure what we would have done without them.


Photos: 1) Students and community members around a handmade rig to test emissions from indoor cookstoves in Uganda. 2) Team Uganda packs a drum to carbonize biomass for charcoal. 3) Members of the Ghana-Moringa team celebrate the competion of a handmade solar dryer. 4) Community members in Ghana experiment with different uses of moringa oil. 5) Members of team Zambia and community partners with their completed brick kiln. 6) Constructing a grinder for making charcoal from agricultural waste in Zambia.


Subscribe to RSS - D-Lab Development