D-Lab Development

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.

IAP Insights: Finding a Calling in Belém, Brazil

by Sung Sik Woo, MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

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, Sung Sik Woo, a graduate student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, shares some of the work he and his team undertook in Brazil, and how his experience was affected by the people he met there.

I first encountered the field of international development at a conference in 2012, through a friend who studied human security at The Tufts Fletcher School. He told me that I could use my knowledge and skills to help people and save lives; that technologies are increasingly used for development purposes rather than financial support these days, so more and more people with technological background are needed in this field. Specifically, he told me that there are numerous people living without electricity and there is certainly something I can do about it. Hearing this, I felt as if my old, forsaken dreams of becoming working in the United Nations and volunteering with the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) for my military service once again came to life. I was overwhelmed by intense curiosity and thrill. Above all, I was struck by a single word he mentioned: “electrification.”

Alas, I had no knowledge or experience on the field of international development. I realized that I cannot say something like “this is my work” based on mere thrill, without studying and gaining firsthand experience in the field. I wanted to figure out what development work is like in a practical sense by taking related courses or participating in an internship. In addition, I needed to figure out whether I really had the guts, love, and ability to work in the field, or was simply excited by temporary emotion. Meanwhile, (while looking over subject lists in a day before the registration day) I happened to discover the D-Lab: Development course. What followed is a story that may be describing the beginning of a new phase of my life.

What was it that made my IAP trip to Brazil such a transformative experience? If I were to summarize what I experienced during the trip in a sentence, most of all, I would say that I was a lucky man. Here’s why:

  1. During the first few team project meetings of the semester, it seemed unlikely that the solar lantern project I was to work on would even be included in the trip. It was revived after a key meeting with D-Labbers Victor Lesniewski and Nadia Elkordy, and cinched when I received a sample lantern from Victor later on. In retrospect, it’s clear that this was the most suitable and exciting project for me.
  2. We added some circuits to a solar lantern such that it functions as a cell phone charger as well, which was very helpful in raising interest of people in the community. The materials that made this possible were discovered accidentally while on eBay looking for something else. The final product worked well and as a bonus, looked much neater than we expected.
  3. Mark Matern and Bruno Lucatto (students of Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica - ITA in Brazil), who were to become my friends and colleagues working on the project, were enthusiastic, diligent, smart, and skillful. They obviously spoke perfect Portuguese and were able to lead surveys and workshops in local communities and were resourceful beyond what I’d expect for their age. Not only that, they were gentle, warm-hearted, and humorous, so wherever they go and whoever they talked to, people liked them. When I felt weary, I could get refreshed and inspired by them.
  4. We were incredibly fortunate in the people we encountered. When we were preparing for the project at Centro Universitário do Pará (CESUPA) in Belém, a professor in electrical engineering searched high and low to find us tools we needed to run an electronics workshop. The Secretary of Environment of Curralinho municipality, Marquinho Baratinha, and community leaders, Esmael Santos and Miguel Baratinha, stayed with us longer than expected to help us. The captain of the ship who stayed with us during our work on the Pagão River, José de Souza, blew us away by learning how to install a solar lantern after watching us just a couple times, and even improved on our process by using nails instead of tape to arrange wires. 

One of the lessons I learned was that it’s not only important to accomplish projects as planned, but also to form meaningful relationships with local people. For example, when in Curralinho, I went out in a small boat made for 2-3 people and learned how to fish. I cannot forget Honório Correa Tenório, who taught me how to fish. After the fishing was over, whenever he saw me, he hugged me, saying that I was like his son and that I should come and stay in his house. He said that we were friends, and that he was poor, but that he was thankful because I did not make him feel that way. I cannot believe how warm this memory is. His daughter Jacimara gave me a unique bracelet she made and I expressed my sincere thanks to her with a cartoon book to color and crayons. There was Michael, too, who kept coming to me to teach me Portuguese while I was in the community on the Pagão River. I’ll never forget the moment he said “Obrigado” with teary eyes when I gave my flashlight in return.

I hope to always remember the relationships I made with these people, our interactions, and what they said. I would like to keep in mind that in doing development work, we ought to be friends with people in communities we visit. Rather than one-way provision, it is better to give and receive with each other, and rather than us just trying to solve their problems, it is better to make better lives together. There exists inexpressible pleasure in these relationships, and sometimes they may determine success or failure of a project, and sometimes they may be more important than the project itself.

When I think about what was challenging in the trip, it is not the inconvenient toilets, nor having to bathe in a river, nor sleeping in a hammock in high temperatures and humidity, nor the mosquitos or barking animals that kept us from sleeping. My teammates and I found that although it was at first difficult, we could adapt to these circumstances after a time. Just as relationships with people were the highlight of the trip, occasional conflicts with people having different perspectives, purposes, and expectations posed the greatest challenge. All in all, these upsets were minor and we were able to work through them, and I feel that my time was spent with good people in good harmony. I learned that in development, as in any other field, people were the key, and establishing good relationships – whether it’s easy or requires some understanding, yielding, etc – is essential.



IAP Insights: Jonathan Tebes, Economics '14

Each January, during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP), the D-Lab Development class organizes trips to several countries to bring students and community partners together. In these trips, partners “borrow” MIT students for work on various projects and initiatives, and D-Lab students get a feel for what international development is like on the ground.

Here, Jonathan Tebes reflects on how his D-Lab trip to Tanzania shifted his perspective on “what development should look like.”

While in Tanzania, my understanding of how to go about the process of development was constantly being challenged. Having a background in international development and current development economic findings, I came to Tanzania with a predisposition to be skeptical of neoclassical perceptions of development. Anything multinational or large-scale to me seemed immoral and wrong. I had learned about how the Solow growth model falsely predicted growth in the 1950s 60s and 70s and how Western nations had a long history of exploiting impoverished populations at the expense of local culture in order to support their own security or financial interests. With this background, I had developed a clear categorization of what development should look like. It should be from the bottom-up, stemming from cultural customs and local needs. D-Lab’s appropriate technologies were a prime example of what I thought this modern form of development should resemble.

However, two experiences altered my perspective and shattered some of the biases that stemmed from this viewpoint. Two weeks into my trip, I was sitting at a canteen and I looked at the back of the bottle of water I had just purchased. The bottle was produced by Kilimanjaro, the most popular water company in Tanzania. The back of the bottle read “product of Coca-Cola.” At first the realization that this water was produced by one of the largest multinational corporations in the world outraged me. I thought, “This is just another example of how a multinational corporation abuses its market power to exploit poor people and make itself richer.” But then I thought about the price of the water; it was $.75 for 1.5L, much cheaper per L than any other bottled drink I could find. Maybe Coca-Cola was doing something right. What company is best able to purify, bottle, and distribute this water at a low price? What company has developed complex supply chains and has the distribution capacity to reach even the most remote villages in Tanzania? Thinking back to the Coca-Cola sign I saw in a rural village I had visited the week prior, I had to admit Coca-Cola was probably the best choice. They knew the supply chains, had significant expertise in bottling and marketing, and possessed the capital necessary to vamp-up production and distribution infrastructure when local capital was not available. So what does this mean for development? Well, maybe it means that working outside the realm of multinational corporations and organizations is not always the best way to go. In fact, millions of villagers in Tanzania have clean drinking water at an affordable price because of Coca-Cola’s decision to sell water for a profit.

The Kilimanjaro water example ties into a discussion I had with another D-Lab student one night while stargazing outside the house where we were staying. He told me about his belief in using socially-minded, for-profit organizations to address development initiatives. His argument was twofold. First, for-profit organizations are financially self-sustainable, in that they do not rely on foreign donors to continue their work. Or put differently, the community completely supports the continuance of the organization. This rephrasing leads to his second point. A for-profit organization focusing on development goals inherently engages the community in which they are based in a dialogue about what it wants development to look like. Community opinions matter and are incorporated because they need to be in order for the corporation to remain profitable. Generally, organizations that rely on foreign aid and/or grants do not have to be structured in a manner that efficiently and accurately integrates user feedback and opinions into product development and dissemination.

This last point is key because incorporation of user feedback means a lot more than just improving the quality of a technology. Superficial aspects of a product frequently influence how much of that product is used and thus how much impact that product has. For example, most people do not use chlorination tablets in Tanzania because they do not like the taste. A for-profit organization might identify this early on during initial user tests, while a non-profit organization might waste years developing a chlorinated solution that will never be used. Another example, I take from Dean Karlan’s book, More than Good Intentions. In a randomized control trial, people were more likely to enroll in a banking program if the program’s flyer had a picture of an attractive woman on front. Clearly the program is equally as good regardless of the flyer, but it will have a greater impact if its flyer is enticing. For-profit organizations also tend to do marketing things like this very well, especially if they are larger organizations that have been around for awhile (think Coca-Cola). So let’s use the talents of these organizations to our advantage either by making large organizations more socially-minded, or by endorsing a for-profit model when structuring our own socially-minded businesses.

IAP Insights: Lynn Yu, '16

Each January, during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP), the D-Lab Development class organizes trips to several countries to bring students and community partners together. In these trips, partners “borrow” MIT students for work on various projects and initiatives, and D-Lab students get a feel for what international development is like on the ground.

Here, MIT freshman Lynn Yu discusses her D-Lab trip to Brazil, and how it opened her eyes to some of the complexities involved in practicing international development.

I’ve been interested in working in development for as long as I can remember. As a child, I used to dream of being a heroic figure who didn’t follow the traditional go-to-college, get-a-job, live-a-stable-and-comfortable-life path. I wanted to be the person who devoted her life to bridging the gap between the rich and the poor, to bringing kids selling Sampaguita flower wreaths or begging for money on the crowded roads of Manila, in my home country of the Philippines. Before coming to MIT, I searched the Internet for development initiatives being undertaken here, and read about D-Lab. I fell in love with the philosophy of using technology as a tool to better the lives of those in poverty.

Going into D-Lab, I thought that we could bring in technologies that would change people’s lives within the brief time period we’d be spending in their communities. However, my IAP experience made me realize that this was a rather unrealistic, even naïve understanding of development. I realized that it was vital to keep in mind that no development project is introduced into a cultural or technological vacuum. Each community has unique traditions, values and ways of living that have been molded over decades or even centuries. It was ignorant of me to think that if I just worked hard on developing a great Reciclideas prototype here at MIT, we could simply bring it into the Dois Palitos favela, wow everyone there, and “improve their lives.”


During the semester, we worked on rebuilding the Reciclideas prototypes developed during the International Development Design Summit last summer in Brazil. They turn plastic PET bottles into strips that can then be easily used to weave baskets, bags and other marketable items. Before my IAP trip, I thought it was a perfect solution; not only did it recycle trash, it also generated income. When I arrived in Dois Palitos, I realized that I hadn’t really thought about what specific problem this “perfect solution” would address. Yes, the community could probably benefit from an additional source of income, but was this the most pressing issue that residents faced? Everyone could benefit from additional wages, but perhaps the most immediate problem that people wanted to see addressed in the community was something else, like the winding, steep, and unpaved roads that may pose a threat to the oldest and youngest members of the community. Maybe people cared more about finding a way to prevent teenage pregnancies, which seemed to be a prevalent issue throughout the favela. I realized how important it was to really take the time to talk to people and understand the nature of the problems in the community before trying to develop a solution.

I also began to see that development work is, by nature, incredibly complex and time consuming. For example, although many members of the community expressed interest in attending our Reciclideas workshop when we walked around the community advertising it, less than half of these people actually showed up on the day. We realized that everyone had busy lives, and it was unrealistic of us to expect them to immediately adopt the Reciclideas model as an alternative income generation method. Firstly, many people probably didn’t have the time to dedicate many hours to collecting plastic bottles, making strips and then weaving them in to products. Secondly, even if they did make many products, where would they sell them and to whom?

During our time in Dois Palitos, we also visited two different “catadores,” or waste-picker cooperatives, in the city of Embu. The first was a very small one, run by three men who worked together to sort trash brought to them by others in the community. We worked with them to build one Reciclideas PET bottle stripper. Afterwards, I felt so happy thinking of the wide-eyed, curiosity and happiness with which one man in particular had received the machine – he told us he was passionate about arts and crafts. I began to think that the Reciclideas project could potentially provide a viable alternative source of income for these men. After that, however, we visited a much larger center, and I was astounded by the incredible work they were doing. Lines of men and women painstakingly sorted out each bit of trash that could be recycled from a moving conveyor belt, and then crushed them using giant, mechanical press machines for further processing. These were the faces behind Brazil’s reputation as a world leader in recycling. I saw that these people served a vital function in society, and yet were paid so little. If we tried to “improve their lives” by encouraging them to use PET bottle strippers to make crafts and become artisans, who would take their place as trash sorters? Could we try to affect the market to naturally reallocate resources to provide these people with higher wages and better living conditions?

Through these experiences, I realized that there were an infinite number of variables that needed to be taken into account in development work - that there could be no singular “perfect solution.” Inspired by my experience in Brazil, I plan to pursue more economics classes here at MIT, in the hope that a greater understanding of markets will help in understanding and investigating development theory.

IAP Insights: Prakriti Paul, Biology '15

Each January, during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP), the D-Lab Development class organizes trips to several countries to bring students and community partners together. In these trips, partners “borrow” MIT students for work on various projects and initiatives, and D-Lab students get a feel for what international development is like on the ground.

In this reflection, Prakriti Paul shares how working in a school in New Longoro, Ghana helped to rekindle a passion for improving education in developing countries.

There were about 10 to 15 children on our last day at the school in New Longoro. It was a hot day, with the sun beating down on all of us - especially at noon. When I finally found my own time and place under a tree with my biology textbook, ready to design experiments for Mr. Richard, the school teacher, I suddenly saw all these kids, in uniforms, running around the Screen room. They were looking for a soccer ball to play with. They had literally followed me back from the primary school, and were looking for fun at the Pastor’s house … during school hours. At that moment, I lost my tolerance for what I had been noticing for days now, and I got up to take the kids back to school. I thought, “If I really care about the educational condition of this village, then I am taking these kids back to school, right now.” I held a little girl named Jess’ hand, and held a boy named Clinton by his shoulder, and as I walked down the long road ahead, the kids followed behind me in an excited, confused flock.

I thought I could at least give a shot to teaching the kids why going to school every day is important. I held Clinton, and told him that he was so special and that he could be anything he wanted to be when he grew up. I asked him if he knew who Bill Clinton was, and to my surprise, he knew that Bill Clinton was an American president. I said, “Do you know how Bill Clinton became the American president? He studied so hard! After primary, JSS, and SS, he went to university, and then to another university for more studies! And he went to school every day!” I asked Clinton what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he said that he wanted to be an engineer. I said, “Clinton, that is an amazing dream, and you can do it - but do you know what you need to get there? You need to go to school everyday, just like Bill Clinton. You need to work really hard every day and never give up. I go to an engineering school, and study eight to10 hours every day, because I know that if I don’t work hard, then I can’t achieve my dreams. If you study hard, you can achieve your dreams. If you don’t study, you won’t be able to. Do you get it?”

Finally, I told him that I understood that it was hard - that sometimes his teachers wouldn’t come to school, or that his friends would be playing outside - but that he should be strong and go to school anyway. I don’t know if I sounded like a broken record (I hope I didn’t), but I really could have sworn that I saw Clinton paying attention - that he was listening. I saw him become more somber and reflective, and I hope that he believed me. I also tried talking to another one of the boys, and make the two boys feel important and responsible as elder kids, hoping they would in turn encourage the younger ones. Once we arrived at the school, I had all the kids promise me that they would come to school every day. I shook their hands and gave them hugs. As I walked away, I got to briefly speak to a primary school teacher, and thanked him for being a blessing to the school in his efforts to teach the children, and that he was blessed to have the role he did in the community as a teacher. It wasn’t just the kids who needed some encouragement!

When I look back, I think about the road from the Pastor’s house to the primary school and how it is a meaningful representation of the path to the successful education of these children. The road is long, and requires a great deal of effort to tread (especially on a hot day like we had) but it exists. There is indeed a road that can take us from point A to B, but it’s not as straightforward as it seems. The process of gettting from A to B encompasses a host of needs that are not immediately visible. For example: personal commitment and honesty in teachers, who must constantly encourage students to study hard and pursue their dreams. It requires behavioral change on all fronts – teachers, students, parents and policy-makers. But, if as a community we commit to addressing these needs, then we can, in time, move from A to B, and see the children of New Longoro thrive.

As I walked away from the primary school, various pieces of my experiences at New Longoro and in my life in general came rushing to my mind - times when I saw the kids running outside the primary school at any given point in the day, times when Nancy Alloway, one of our trip leaders, encouraged me to join the Peace Corps or teach children, remembering reading about Asha for Education in the 8th grade and vowing to improve educational opportunities for children in India, the teachers in my life and how they impacted my academic life and success, the little boy with a worn-out shirt and the hungriest expression I had ever seen in the middle-right corner of the P3 classroom, and the joy I felt when one of my Biology demonstrations worked - all of it patched together and spoke to me. God, through this beautiful mosaic, had asked me, “What now?” and challenged me to think about my life and its goals. Through my IAP experiences, conversations with my trip leaders, reflection, and some completely unexpected decisions, I have begun to see ways by which I can answer this question.

With help of IDI and UROP, students return to Avani

Elliot Avila (MechE '14) writes about his return to India over the summer to continue work with Avani
Over the summer of 2012, a team of current and former D-lab students – Nathan Landman (Bio Engineering '15), Kristin Kagetsu (MechE '12), and myself – travelled together to work with Avani Kumaon in the mountainous regions of northern India. Avani works to promote sustainable farm and artisan-based livelihood opportunities in the remote reaches of the Himalayas and has been a partner of D-lab for several years, sending staff members to IDDS and collaborating with teams of students on various projects. Kristin and I had both visited Avani over IAP 2012 as part of the India team from D-Lab: Development. With the support of D-lab, the UROP office, and the International Development Initiative at MIT, we were able to travel back with the hopes of making progress on the projects that we had started over the course of the year.
The trip was quite the experience for each of us. We ate great food, met amazing people and experienced their unique culture, and made satisfying headway on our projects. I had the opportunity to redesign a dryer that I had worked on over IAP and we used it to make the sun-dried tomatoes that topped the very first Avani pizza! And we all got a chance to dance, sing songs, and tell stories at Avani's new montessori school. Trust me when I say that it was harder than it sounds, but also extremely rewarding and fun.
Our biggest project though was our continuing work with Avani to develop a new product – artisanal, natural-dye crayons. The crayons are made with beeswax and natural pigments derived from various plants that are found naturally in the hills surrounding Avani, and work on the crayons had continued beyond IAP to become a D-Lab: Design project in Spring 2012. We spent our time perfecting the recipes to create vibrant, smooth colors and figuring out an environmentally friendly manufacturing process to mass-produce the crayons. In Boston, we’ve attended workshops to develop a business strategy and are continuing to work with Avani, and other former D-lab students, to try and bring the product to the marketplace. We're in the process of talking to retailers, so don’t be surprised if you see stores selling Avani-made crayons in the upcoming year!
Click here for more information on how the International Development Initiative supports ID at MIT
Click here to view a short documentary (2007) on the work of Avani in northern India

Solar Lighting Improvements

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A solar lighting system is a green alternative to grid electricity for lighting a house. At AVANI, solar lighting systems are locally made for people around the area to also provide job opportunities for people as solar technicians. D-Lab students designed a new circuit to reduce the price and increase the lanterns' efficiency.


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