D-Lab: Gender

Update from D-Lab: Gender, Team Ghana: January D-Lab Student Fieldwork


Garbage hauler transports recyclables out from the Kpone landfill


This Jaunary, students from the fall D-Lab: Gender  course traveled to Ghana to work with Ashesi University students to conduct research with a community of waste pickers, participating in Pick-It!, an integrated waste management program funded by Fan Milk, Limited, Danone Ecosystem Fund, and FMO (the Dutch Development Bank). The Hewlett Foundation is also supporting the project, through WIEGO. Pick-it is a D-Lab Inclusive Markets project. Following is a blog post from the students who traveled to Ghana:


“We were awestruck by the breadth of innovations in financial inclusion in Ghana. Institutions here went miles above and beyond textbook definitions, uniquely accommodating the complexities in everyday circumstances, and leaving no stone unturned to bring the bank to the people.” 

“Amen!” enthused Aunty Efua when D-Lab's Libby McDonald recapped for us why we were all gathered there — four students (Aimee Veneau, Karrisha Gillespie, Sruthi Davuluri, and Raeesa Rane) from MIT D-Lab, local partners from Environment 360, WIEGO, students from Ashesi University, and over 30 women waste-pickers — our chairs arranged in a circle on a veranda at the Tema Palace.

We had convened to continue to work towards  building a sustainable  enterprise with waste-pickers in the Greater Accra Region. Together, we held dreams of a future where a collective of waste pickers from Kpone and Tema, 26 people strong, would operate a sorting center of their own design and hold ownership in a recycling business that is truly inclusive and fulfilling. We strived for an even stronger community of women entrepreneurs — armed with Pickets, business acumen, and the appropriate financial tools to realize their indomitable potential.

Over the course of this trip, we spoke both with waste-picking communities to gain deeper insights into their financial priorities, challenges, and aspirations, and with financial institutions, microfinance institutes and large private banks alike, to discover what innovative and accessible tools exist in Ghana best suited to this context. 

From Left to Right: Fafa, Carol, Raeesa, Karrisha, Aimee, Libby, Sruthi, and Wayne.  Photo Credit: Maurice Caschinco 


Visits to waste-picking communities

On our first full day in Accra, we visited the waste picking communities at the Kpone landfill and in Tema. We engaged in extended conversations about the waste pickers’ finances in focus groups. Facilitators drew five circles representing food, business, education, health, and recreation on chart paper and analyzed how participants allocated their money (represented by stones) amongst those priorities.

Two truths quickly surfaced at both locations: first, that participants were avid entrepreneurs. Almost every woman in Tema had a side business — they were seamstresses, soap makers, sanitation workers, and fish mongers. In a second iteration of this activity, where facilitators handed out twice as many stones as there were circles, we found that participants invested a hefty percentage of their income specifically towards expanding their businesses. In doing so, they hoped to buy better equipment, take bigger orders, and increase their incomes. 

Focus group participating in prioritizing activity at Tema Palace in Tema, Ghana.  Photo Credit: Wayne Gakuo


Second, we found that they heavily prioritized saving for their children and for their futures. We watched as they drew their own sixth circle for savings and put aside large portions of their income in it. As crucial as it was to save, conversations revealed that there was a wide range of saving methods used amongst the participants. While the most sophisticated used mobile money and rotating susu (ROSCA) schemes, others had more rudimentary savings tools — some stored money in the ground and it was common to carry savings permanently on their bodies.

Sharing the aspirations and challenges of waste-picking communities with financial institutions

After our initial data gathering exercises, we shared the aspirations and challenges of our waste-picking communities with several financial institutions. We were awestruck by the breadth of innovations in financial inclusion in Ghana. Institutions here went miles above and beyond textbook definitions, uniquely accommodating the complexities in everyday circumstances, and leaving no stone unturned to bring the bank to the people.

Two of the institutions we spoke with had scaled the local daily susu saving scheme across neighborhoods in Accra. They deployed their own vehicles and collectors to go door to door and collect small amounts of money from clients (usually women) in their homes and deposited it in their bank accounts. Not only did they consider mobility restrictions, they also designed personalized schemes around their borrowers’ priorities: for instance, they created plans to pay school fees upfront and allowed their clients to repay gradually and cheaply. They also worked with supply stores to buy school supplies in bulk and offer better prices on those materials to parents. We learned of truly valiant efforts to close knowledge gaps, achieve economies of scale, and reel workers in the informal sector into a secure/formal banking system. 


Taken at the end of a workshop with participants from Kpone landfill and partners from WIEGO, Ashesi University & Environment 360.  Photo Credit: Wayne Gakuo

In addition to these meetings, we had a great time testing out products ourselves. We went into Accra scouting out mobile banking kiosks and stores to recreate the process of setting up and operating an account. Several demonstrations, long lines, and lots of questions later, we had gained much richer knowledge of the user experience and better understood the waste pickers’ challenges with this system. We also broke into working groups with the eight wonderful students from Ashesi University and recreated different savings schemes on a micro-level. We pinned up charts and studied how various products held up in comparison. This collaborative and hands-on effort helped lay the ground for our workshop design and planning marathon at Ashesi University. 

Planning for a co-design workshop at Ashesi Universtiy

Working with the Ashesi University students at their school was definitely one of the most memorable experiences from this trip. We spent all day planning ahead for the curriculum co-design workshop in March at the beautiful Ashesi Campus. Lined with palm trees and red-roofs and sitting atop a hill, the small peri-urban campus was idyllic and bustling. Distilling the best of our insights, we designed interactive games, activities, and focus groups for the workshop. We shared laughs and many stories over groundnut chicken soup, omo tuo, red red, and mounds of wakye and yam at their school cafeteria, and continued to work until we had most of a plan. Saying goodbye at the end of such an eventful week was bittersweet, but we are so fortunate to have shared this learning experience with each other. 

We cannot wait to reunite with the Ashesi students on campus in April for the financial inclusion presentation and panel discussion at MIT D-Lab where we will  share our findings with the wider community. Cheers to a wonderful January, and here’s to hoping that the balmy April breeze brings more life and renewed vigor to our project. 

— Aimee Veneau, Karrisha Gillespie, Sruthi Davuluri, and Raeesa Rane, D-Lab: Gender, Fall 2017 

Update from D-Lab: Gender, Team Nicaragua: January D-Lab Student Fieldwork


Left to right: Janel, Gabriela, Thea, Olivia, Juliana, Nelson, Migdália and Laureano


"Having the chance to create a valid visual, educational, and often emotional, connection between our academic research and the lives that are maintaining and affecting these areas of prior research is a chance that not many have and an opportunity for us to grow as learners and recognize the significance of individuals often overlooked in a global world."

A group of four MIT D-Lab students, Juliana (visiting PhD student and trip leader), Olivia, Janel and Thea, two Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) de Nicaragua students, Gabriela and Laureano, along with their professors Migdália and Nelson, went to Estelí to explore the Fundación Entre Mujeres (FEM) in Nicaragua. The figure of a full-bodied woman sits proudly in the meeting room at the FEM headquarters. Surrounded by fresh flowers, perpetually lit candles and incense, seeds, and beans, the figure represents mother earth and the cycle of growth and protection that she offers not only to the women at FEM but also to the people of the world. The statue is significant because of her conspicuous dimensions as well as what she represents. Equality, abundance, equilibrium, and inclusion are embodied in the figure. 

FEM provides women a place to be empowered and educated through redefining existing power relationships. Beginning with education through an ideological approach, a meaningful change begins to take place as women can see themselves as autonomous over their own lives and their connections with nature, businesses, and success. Ideology and education inevitably lead to organization allowing women to transform their lives. Since FEM is a non-governmental organization (NGO), the economic empowerment is represented by Las Diosas, which is a social, organic and fair trade enterprise. Las Diosas is the third step in the process that FEM practices and can be achieved only after the ideology and organization are solidly grounded within every individual. 

Day One

Monday, January 8th, 6 AM: The alarm rang and in fifteen minutes we were ready to start our journey from Managua to Estelí, a city that hosts one of the most empowered group of women any of us have ever seen. We were dumbfounded by the strong and inspiring speech given by Diana, one of the co-founders and director of Fundación Entre Mujeres (FEM). We are fascinated by the level of maturity, aspiration and ideological strength of FEM. They are not only looking to achieve economic empowerment in a classical way, they are envisioning a new model of development that they call “Economía Feminista” which goes beyond the traditional economic and business theories of empowerment. It is really a groundbreaking approach. They hope to usher in a new non-violent and anti-patriarchal economic system that stands for the well-being of all women, where they are guaranteed the right to potable water access, better quality of food, sexual rights and body ownership, agroforestry sustainability, and dignity! 

Day Two

Day Two dawned bright and early for the core MIT D-Lab/UCA team stationed in Esteli, but even earlier for the workshop participants, many of whom journeyed from over two hours away (taking multiple public buses) to join us for a day of brainstorming and participatory development. Following an introductory icebreaker, the 15 women in attendance split into five groups and rotated among “mesa-café's," answering a series of detailed questions about the effects of climate change on their livelihoods and their status as female farmers and cooperative members. Their insightful responses were consolidated into SWOT diagrams (or “FODA” charts, in Spanish), which detailed the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats associated with each of their three main agricultural products: coffee, honey, and hibiscus flower. These charts were distilled into the three most pressing difficulties facing the production of each crop: one oft-repeated complaint was women’s lack of access to land ownership. In the afternoon, the women set about drafting detailed diagrams of the coffee, honey, and hibiscus production processes, and a subsequent brainstorming session identified the weakest links in the value chains.

Rosy (Rosybel, president of Las Diosas - central of cooperatives)

Day Three

In the verdant hills of Colorado (Nicaragua), we chatted with Isabel, president of the COOPAMUJER cooperative. She spoke to us about her practice of honey cultivation, or apiculture: there are eight hives on her property, and her recent acquisition of a centrifugal honey extractor (via FEM) has more than doubled her production. Roughly half of her hives are exposed to full sunlight in a clearing behind her house, and the rest are nestled in a shadowy glade; she tells us that the bees in the shade are far more aggressive than their sun-drenched compatriots. She confides in us that her four now-grown sons hate the bees. Speaking of her children, she believes strongly in the importance of sensitizing girls and boys to gender dynamics from a very young age, and she hopes to someday enroll her granddaughters in the youth division of FEM. “We can’t change the old, but we can change the young,” she asserts.

Isabel shows off her honey centrifuge. Photo courtesy of FEM

Lucía, also member of COOPAMUJER, cultivates livestock and vegetable crops for her family’s consumption, and she donates a small parcel of land to FEM for experimentation with new seedlings. She also grows coffee on the two manzanas  (1 manzana = 1.72 acres) of land that she has owned since 2009. She notes that coffee yield has plummeted in recent years, primarily as a result of La Roya, a fungal infection that decimated Nicaraguan agriculture from 2012-2014. New crops have been planted, but it takes approximately four years for the coffee plants to become viable. 

Our hardy group of travelers trundled back down the hill and into the living room of Maria Theresa, president of the COPEMUJER cooperative in Los Llanos 1. She is a bubbly, vivacious woman of 50 years who doesn’t look a day over 40 and sports leopard-print leggings like a pro. Maria, who dispenses warm hugs indiscriminately, immediately plied us with freshly-picked Mandarin oranges from her garden. (The extent of her goodwill is such that at one point, she took a phone call from her son’s former girlfriend - whom she endearingly referred to as “muchachita” - and made plans to meet later that day.)

Maria’s primary cash crop is coffee, and she too has registered a significant decline in yield over the past few years. She also cites women’s limited land ownership prospects as a significant problem faced by her community.

Looking Forward

Following three intense days of powerful and inspiring workshops, conversation, and exploration, the team looks forward to what the remainder of the trip will hold. As we move forward into another day of field visits to the homes, farms, and land owned and/or operated by the members of the co-ops, we are eager to see and hear what the women have to teach us. The field visits will continue to allow us to delve deeper into the day-to-day operations of the co-ops that we learned about in research prior to our trip. Having the chance to create a valid visual, educational, and often emotional, connection between our academic research and the lives that are maintaining and affecting these areas of prior research is a chance that not many have and an opportunity for us to grow as learners and recognize the significance of individuals often overlooked in a global world. 

Additionally, we will enjoy continued discussions within the FEM headquarters with presidents, members, and FEM co-founders. After our previous workshops and days of field visits, the final meeting will serve as a platform to share and discuss our findings including strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, exposed during the field visits and supported by our initial workshop. Our final meeting gives us the information that we need to continue making progress on a growing program and to continue to supply women on the ground with the support that they need to ultimately own the program and thrust themselves into a continuous upward trajectory of success with FEM. The women who operate within FEM represent a small-scale enterprise that, with continued progress, can serve as an archetype of sustainable farming and “Economía Feminista” model!

Not only were our eyes opened to new perspectives on a feminist economy, small business transitory periods, and the strengths and difficulties associated with operating within a co-op, but our hearts were also opened to the individual stories of the women making Fundacion Entre Mujeres possible. Having first-hand interactions with the trailblazing women of FEM has set us up for an invaluable educational experience during our time in Esteli, Nicaragua. 

- Juliana, Olivia, Janel and Thea

Note: This project is part of the Resilient Economies Action Lab (REAL), a D-Lab Inclusive Markets program. The work of these students will be continued in the Spring 2018 class D-Lab: New Economies in which students will return to Esteli, Nicaragua to work with Fundacion Entre Muujeres in a co-design workshop developed to support the creation of solutions that will allow smallholder farmers to become more resilient to climate change.

D-Lab Gender & Development: Course and travel opportunity updates!

By D-Lab Instructors Libby McDonald & Kate Mytty


D-Lab: Gender & Development - Accelerating Women’s Economic Prosperity explores international development in the post-colonial era using a gender and identity lens. Our aim is to provide students with the tools they need to analyze power dynamics and design gender- and identity-sensitive international development projects that accelerate women’s economic prosperity. 

There are numerous examples of development efforts that have magnified the power dynamics in a community, resulting in an even more inequitable outcome. On the flip side, there are wonderful examples that have intentionally addressed existing power dynamics to achieve more equitable outcomes. Through D-Lab Gender & Development, we will introduce the historical roots of gender and identity in development; explore and evaluate existing tools to use when developing a new policy, business venture, system or technology; and give students an opportunity to apply the knowledge gained to an in-class project that includes a travel component over the January Independent Activities Period (IAP). 

To introduce the course, here is one example of our experience of the complexities of gender and identity. This anecdote clearly illustrates why a gender analysis is important while engaged in international development work.  

Exploring Women’s Access to Technology in Delhi, India

Through MIT’s Comprehensive Initiative for Technology Evaluation (CITE), colleagues and I were researching how women make technological decisions. One of the stories we continued to hear from women living in various Delhi slums was that their opinion did not influence technology decisions. Power dynamics played a large role in this situation.  

When it came to specific technology decisions, husbands or sons, and sometimes, even their daughters, would make decisions about what technologies to buy before the wife’s input would be sought. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that power dynamics also influence women’s access to information. SEWA Delhi, the organization we were working with, recognizes this and takes numerous steps to increase access to information. One of the most simple, and yet powerful, steps is to teach women to use the public train system in Delhi. This gives women the ability to travel to sources information available throughout the city, rather than relying only on information available in their neighborhood. 

From the perspective of someone developing a new policy, business venture, technology, or system, recognizing these barriers to information can substantially influence the process and the outcome of a development project. 


This year, D-Lab Gender  & Development students will be invited to utilize knowledge and tools gained over the semester by working to design and implement one of two international development projects.


Students will research financial management training and tools appropriate for a marginalized population in Accra, Ghana, co-design a financial inclusion program, and travel to Ghana where they will work with a large association of women waste pickers and a financial institution to begin the implementation process.


Students will work with a local NGO in Estelí, Nicaragua  to develop urban farming methods and gain an in-depth understanding of the local food economy by mapping supply chains to support the creation of an urban agricultural business that takes into account the effects of climate change.

New D-Lab: Gender course to be co-taught by Martha Thompson and Libby McDonald.

By Martha Thompson, D-Lab: Gender Co-Instructor

Waste pickers from the women's recycling cooperative Luz Del Futuro at a dumpsite in Bluefields, Nicaragua. 



Top banner photo:

Kuna women discussing how they run their business on the Kuna Yala Island of Suitupu (Panama's Caribbean Coastline).









Gender is often a misunderstood concept that can elicit eye-rolling in some circles. “Oh now, you aren’t going to bring up gender, are you? We have lots of women involved in the (fill in the blank).” Gender is actually not only about women, but about the roles that society assigns women and men; how those roles affects relationships between them; and women’s access to resources, power, protection, and voice. Gender justice focuses on recognizing the unequal power relationships between men and women, and working to make those relationships a little more equal.

When I first became exposed to the idea of gender justice, a civil war was going on in El Salvador and I was an OXFAM program coordinator working with the civilian population living in conflict zones. I didn’t give it too much importance. We were involving women in our work, we were encouraging women’s leadership, and we were hoping that when the rebels became part of the government, they would champion women’s rights. What we were most concerned about was for the war to end so that the killing and terrible suffering would end. 

I didn’t realize how limiting this view was, nor did I realize that it would have negative repercussions in projects I was working on. During the war, we were careful to provide equal aid to men and women in the conflict zones. We just didn’t get it that unless we understood the gender roles and limitations, that giving men and women the same resources would not make them equal. In the mountains of Morazan, a conflict area, civilians were returning to their homes despite the ongoing war because they could not survive when displaced to the cities. Members of twenty communities formed an organization called PADESCOMS to organize, seek, and administrate aid. As subsistence farmers, what they needed most was fertilizer to plant corn. Families would get fertilizer from PADESCOMS and then pay it back in corn at the harvest to get more fertilizer. 

This project gave people in the conflict zones hope, and we made sure that every household headed by a woman received fertilizer. Initially the project was a success and all the female-headed households were able to pay back their share of corn. Three months later, though, those same households were doing very poorly. They didn’t have enough to eat before planting season rolled around. I decided to spend a few days walking around the communities and talking to people to figure it out. It only took me until lunch on the first day, when a woman invited me into her house to eat. I saw an older man out on the porch, also eating, and asked about him. “Oh, he is the laborer,” she explained. Then she went on to clarify that because women traditionally only performed certain agricultural tasks and did not know how to do the others, and they had no extra time (because they also had to run their homes), they had to hire men to do the other tasks and pay them in corn. 

So households headed by women were faring badly because they had to both pay back the fertilizer and pay the laborers. It was simple: we hadn’t paid attention to the different roles that men and women play in these agricultural communities. Furthermore, a single mother with five small children could not look after her house, her children, and farm a distant cornfield by herself. It was my first introduction to the difference between involving and supporting women and being sensitive to gender, and I realized I needed to understand the gender roles more thoroughly if I did not want to inadvertently move women farther down the socioeconomic ladder.

Since then, over the past 30 years, I have worked as a humanitarian aid worker in conflict and emergency situations all over the world . This work has taught me that there are sharp inequalities between men and women pretty much everywhere. I have also discovered that those inequalities are deeply rooted in how societies see men and women, and that changing these perspectives on gender would be no simple task. However, roles can change because culture is not immutable. 

Working in a war zone is a great demonstration of how cultural shifts happen out of necessity. In wartime, women take on new leadership positions and men learn to work with women and view them on a more equal footing. There is also a negative reconstruction of masculinity in war. Men who were previously law-abiding can be trained to use rape as a weapon of war. Thirty years ago in Darfur, it was considered shameful to attack women. Now Darfur is a place where rape is used with impunity as a weapon of war. Cultural shifts can and do happen. The question is, what can we do so that a culture shifts the scales towards justice rather than injustice?

I have met many people who tell me that gender justice is a “western concept” being imposed on people in other parts of the world. But I have never been to a place where some of the women or girls did not speak up about inequality or question the injustice of the role that society assigns them. And men are increasingly speaking up about these topics and connecting the dots between their concept of masculinity and the inequality between men and women.

D-Lab: Gender, a new course I am teaching in the fall with Libby McDonald, seeks to promote student understanding of gender roles and their associated power dynamics.Before we seek to understand how gender roles are defined in other societies, we need to be aware of how the society in which we grew up constructs masculinity and femininity –sometimes in ways in which we are not even aware. Therefore, the course will equip students to perform a gender analysis and a gender audit of different situations and seek to provide strategies to make a student’s work gender sensitive. We want students to be able to take what they have learned in this course and apply it to their work, whether in appropriate technology, agriculture, waste management, income generation, or other career paths. Hopefully, collective knowledge will prevent woman-headed households from continually falling behind!

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