Apply to be a Design Facilitator for a WASH design summit in Ethiopia Jan 22-Feb 2, 2018!

Photo: USAID Photo Gallery. Photo credit: Morgana Wingard.


Seeking six design facilitators for a WASH themed co-design summit in Ethiopia this January co-hosted by PSI/Ethiopia and MIT-D-Lab. Applications due by Wednesday October 11 at noon EDT. Apply online here by October 11!

The Context

Africa’s oldest independent country, Ethiopia is known as the source of coffee and mankind.  With one of the fastest growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia still faces challenges as health markets are failing to reach those that need life-saving health products and services, especially in the WASH sector.  Ethiopia achieved its Millennium Development Goal target of 57 percent access to safe drinking water, halving the number of people without access to safe water since 1990. Yet access to improved sanitation remains stubbornly low at only 28 percent nationwide up from three percent in 1990.  Despite these strides, safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) coverage remains insufficient. Inadequate access to safe water and sanitation services and poor hygiene practices negatively impact health and nutrition; diarrheal disease is one of the leading causes of under-five mortality in Ethiopia.

To address a part of this grand WASH challenge in Ethiopia, PSI/Ethiopia launched a market development project in 2017 to increase use of improved water and sanitation products. The USAID-funded Transform WASH program addresses key barriers to uptake and sustain use of WASH products and services.  It is achieving this by strengthening demand for WASH products and services, especially sanitation, by designing communications, products and services that meet consumer needs. It also influences the WASH supply chain by providing evidence on tested concepts and solutions for products and services that result in a strengthened value chain and the adoption of profitable business models for WASH (including toilets, hand washing, water storage, water treatment, and fecal sludge management), that reach low-income consumers. In addition, the program is strengthening the enabling environment through co-creation, collaboration, and co-learning with the Government of Ethiopia, private sector, consumers, financial institutions, and development partners to remove barriers to a thriving WASH marketplace and to improve client-oriented behavior.

The WASH Co-Design Summit

As a part of the larger Transform WASH program, PSI/Ethiopia is partnering with MIT D-Lab to host a 10-day WASH themed Co-Design Summit from January 22-Feburary 2, 2018 to catalyze connections and solutions to common WASH challenges. The summit will convene 30 participants – 24 Ethiopian participants from across the WASH sector (users, health workers, government representatives, local entrepreneurs, and WASH experts) and six MIT D-Lab students – to practice the co-creative design process and prototype low-cost solutions together.

During the summit, participants will live and work with each other around Hawassa, Ethiopia. They will participate in hands-on learning sessions led by PSI/Ethiopia and MIT D-Lab as well will work in one of six project teams.  The projects will focus on one of the following topics*:

  • Improving water accessibility for cleaning and washing
  • Understanding gender difference in how toilets are used or not used
  • Creating products for segmented markets (children, elders, women, disabled, etc.)
  • Designing interactive educational tools (for kids, for HEWs, for entrepreneurs, etc.)
  • Improving smell and cleanliness of toilets and latrines
  • Creating solutions to handwashing challenges
  • Making products more transportable
  • Improving modularized units of products (for selling and distributing)
  • Improving affordability of toilets through material substitutions
  • Improving superstructure and toilet design
  • Designing toilet paper alternatives  

*All projects are subject to pivot based on information gathered both before the summit and during the summit.

The Design Facilitator Role

The Design Facilitator will play a critical role in leading and supporting each project team through the co-design process (there will be one design facilitator per project team) and creating a simple project brief after the summit.  The design facilitator will instruct or co-instruct some sessions for the hands-on sessions (including build-its sessions). 

Before the summit, the design facilitator will be required to attend a series of online calls to train together and prepare for the summit, read background documents about the context, and watch a few key videos on the work of PSI in Ethiopia so far. 

During the summit, the design facilitator will help guide each project team through the design process and support any physical or mental needs the team may have. Design facilitators will not be responsible to create a solution, but they will responsible to help keep the team unified and ensure they co-create a solution together.  

After the summit, the design facilitator will create a one-page project brief that includes a summary of the team’s journey, key insights gathered on the project topic, and recommendations for next steps.  

Eligibility Criteria

All design facilitator applicants must:

  • Be available 
  • Be at least 18 years of age
  • Have experience facilitating a diverse group of people
  • Have experience working or volunteering in the WASH sector
  • Have practical and basic building skills
  • Be respectful, optimistic, curious, and promote inclusive collaboration
  • Work well independently as well as in teams

Selection Criteria

We will review all applications and select design facilitators based on:

  • Facilitation experience
  • WASH sector experience
  • Experience in development setting
  • Experience and enthusiasm for co-creating solutions through participatory design
  • Alignment of personal mindsets with design summit mindsets (respect, optimism, curiosity, and inclusive collaboration)

Experience as an IDDS design facilitator or previous work in Ethiopia is preferred, but not a requirement.

Notification Process

All applications will be reviewed and will be selected by the MIT D-Lab co-lead instructors for the summit, Libby Hsu and Sher Vogel.  All applicants will be notified if they are accepted, wait-listed, or not accepted by Wednesday, October 18. 


Pending funding approval in late October, PSI/Ethiopia and MIT D-Lab will cover the costs of design facilitator round-trip flight, housing, and food during the design summit.  In addition, each facilitator will receive a stipend of 2000 USD after submitting project briefs.  

Further Questions? Feel free to contact MIT D-Lab Trainings and Convenings Manager, Sher Vogel

Apply online here by October 11!

MIT D-Lab 15th Anniversary Symposium & Community Day - Oct 20 & 21!


MIT D-Lab is turning 15!  Time flies when you're changing the paradigm of international development . . . Join us at MIT for a day-long Symposium on Friday, October 20!


Humanitarian Innovation: Workshop with unaccompanied refugee minors, Athens, Greece

by D-Lab Founding Director Amy Smith & D-Lab Instructor Martha Thompson


"This gave me hope again, I believe I can make things and solve problems,” said a 17 year-old Afghani boy after completing the MIT D-Lab Creative Capacity Building training in Athens, Greece at the beginning of August. 

For the last two years, we have been telling anyone who will listen (and some who don’t) that design training would be a powerful transformation tool for refugees, but our experience this August, leading a design training with a group of underage refugees in Athens, proved more powerful than we had imagined. A team of six D-Lab staff members and students led a week-long Creative Capacity Building (CCB) workshop from August 3-9th for a group of unaccompanied refugee minors. Having left their countries because of armed conflict, they are now alone in Greece without parents, several are orphaned, and they face huge challenges seeking asylum in Europe. And although we originally thought that income generation would be our major impact, we learned that the most important impact was that they could recover an identity that moved beyond that of refugee, they could see themselves in a new way: as makers and innovators. 

Martha: There are 2,300 unaccompanied refugee minors in Greece, almost all boys between the ages of 12 and 17, from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Eritrea. They are stranded and alone in Greece with no real solution to their limbo, caught up in the often inexplicably cruel bureaucratic gears of asylum and immigration policy.  Most joined the massive refugee push into Europe in 2015 and 2016, but when the borders closed, they ended up trapped in a situation that didn’t have clear pathways for the future they had hoped for. As minors, they can apply for family reunification if they have family members in other countries in Europe and many have done so. However, the bureaucracy in both the host country of Greece and the receiving countries in other parts of Europe can take over two years and the teens remain in limbo. If the youth turns 18 during that time, he is no longer a minor and is no longer eligible to join his family. 

Until the fall of 2016, these boys passed under the radar of the humanitarian organizations, they lived on the streets in Athens and other cities, doing what they could to get by, suffering all kinds of exploitation. Now there are shelters for about 1,300 of them but the rest are still living in dubious, often unsafe circumstances. Finding a solution for 2,300 teens who are unaccompanied minors should be possible, we are not talking about tens of thousands but still there is no solution on the table for them. Most cannot go back to where they came from and now they cannot go forward on their journey. This leaves these boys in limbo, biding time in Greece, some waiting for family reunification, others just waiting hopefully for some solution to their situation. 

Beyond the statistics of refugees in Greece, each of these boys has a story of trauma and resilience, but those stories get lost in the morass of international immigration and resettlement bureaucracy.  When others see you primarily as a refugee, you are not seen as an individual, particularly one progressing towards a future. Being seen as part of a “vulnerable population” is even more disempowering. The CCB workshop changed that for these youth. It created a space where these smart, motivated young men could be just that: intelligent people learning useful skills, not refugees, not traumatized youth but smart kids with a lot of potential. 

Amy: A group of 14 teens came from different shelters and camps in and around Athens, traveling for up to an hour and a half in the intense August heat to get to the training site. They spent the first three days learning the design process and gaining hands-on skills through a variety of projects and activities and during the second three days, applied the process to a project of their own choice. Their first project was to build a hand-held hot wire foam cutter which taught some basic woodworking, metal working and electronics. They used the cutter to make patterns which they then learned how to cast in aluminum at the small foundry we cobbled together in the sub-basement. The next project was originally going to be a tool box that they could put their tools and projects in. We had thought that it might be nice for them to be able to lock it, as few of them have a way to secure their belongings. As we were working with the youth, we realized that we wanted to give them more control over what they created, so we made it more open—they could design any kind of locking box that they wanted. Each one of them was given two pieces of wood, a meter-long piece of 1” x 6” and a meter-long piece of 1” x 4”. They were given hinges, hasps and a lock, and the rest was up to them. Because their supply of wood was limited, we encouraged them to make cardboard models of the box before starting. Then we taught them the basics of sawing, drilling, and fastening and they got to work making the real thing. 

The variety of boxes was incredible. Every one was unique and contained a little of the heart and soul of its maker. One of the youth made a box that was a replica of a box that his grandmother used to keep treats in for him when he came to visit. Another took advantage of a knot hole in the wood, and had a charging port for his cell phone. One of the youth who loved to work on science projects built a box for his electronics tools, and designed it so that when you slid open the doors, two small LEDs turned on and lit up the inside. Another took on the challenge of making a triangular box, without the benefit of a miter box to make the angled cuts. It was a real testament to his perseverance that he finished his box without reverting to the classic rectangular shape. As they painted their boxes, even more of themselves came to the surface; one of the younger boys painted the mountains of home and the name of his little brother on his box. Others displayed their pride in and love of their home countries by painting Afghani or Syrian flags. Some looked to the future by painting the flags of countries they wanted to go to. It was amazing how such a simple activity could lead to such a wealth of self-expression.

For the second part of the training, the youth had a chance to choose their own design projects to work on. Some chose things that would be useful in the camp, solar-powered fans and a solar-powered water cooler. Another group chose to address a problem their family faced at home, building a model for a solar-powered irrigation system that could store and release water to irrigate terraces of fruit trees on the hillsides of Afghanistan. They worked in teams of three or four, alongside one of the D-Lab facilitators. Martha and I were joined by three wonderful D-Lab students (Molly and Zoe from the Humanitarian Innovation class, and Jana from the Design class) and our amazing translator, Asif, who is one of D-Lab’s financial administrators for his “day job”.  The youth made friends across language barriers, taught each other what they knew, and built upon each other’s ideas to improve their designs. They drew from the skills that they learned during the first part of the week, and gained a lot of new skills. They came early every day and left late every afternoon and made sure to clean the work space and leave it spotless and organized. They expanded into a space where they could prove what they were capable of. Waiting to move on to permanent settlement or for asylum, they feel their lives are being frittered away and they are falling farther and farther behind. This design workshop reversed that feeling; they felt that they were moving ahead.

Martha: When we started planning this CCB workshop, one goal was to provide the youth with skills to invent and make things that they could eventually sell so that they could earn income. Another goal was to improve their self-esteem and help them realize their creative potential. What the youth taught us was just how important that second goal was for their own development. They are hungry for knowledge and new skills to improve their lives and are deeply motivated to learn and demonstrate what they are capable of doing. They so badly want an opportunity to grow. 

Amy: The final showcase was a highlight of the week, a moment of great energy and enthusiasm, but it was critical that the youth understood they could continue working on their designs, learn new skills and make more useful things after the training was over and that this feeling of achievement was not transitory. We are pleased that Zoe, a recnt D-Lab graduate and one of the design facilitators for the workshop, has volunteered to stay on for the next three months in Athens to provide design mentoring for the youth and to run additional classes in science, technology, innovation and engineering. D-Lab is working with two partners in Athens to facilitate Zoe’s work, Faros, a Greek NGO that works with unaccompanied minors and does outreach across different networks to engage youth in educational activities and The Cube Athens, a collaborative workspace and start-up incubator that has a maker space that let us use their building for the training, Both organizations have welcomed Zoe to use their space for on-going work and encourage the youth to continue using their resources, and even to bring along their friends. The Cube will host a mini-maker fair in Athens in October where the youth can present their refined prototypes and any other projects that they have developed.

We have exciting visions for collaborating with these partners to build upon this work and open a vocational training and innovation center in Athens. Our hope is to open the center to local youth from Athens as well the unaccompanied minors and other refugees in order to give the groups a chance to get to know each other and integrate with each other. We would love to bring more D-Lab students there to do other design trainings, and hope to incorporate this into our Humanitarian Innovation class next spring. In addition, we are in discussions with another group to develop a mobile workshop to do CCB trainings in other camps in Greece. Although our resources are still scarce, we know that we need to continue to move this work forward. These smart, motivated, committed young men are getting air-brushed out of the picture of refugees in Europe and left to languish. They deserve better. We must keep faith with them, and help create opportunities for them to become who they dream of being …  and it is a lot more than just a refugee.  

D-Lab 15th Anniversary Symposium & Community Day! October 20 and 21, 2017!


D-Lab is turning 15! And we're celebrating our academic, research, and global programs with a full-day symposium and a fun-filled community day!

D-Lab 15th Anniversary Symposium

Friday, Oct. 20, 10 am-7 pm
Little Kresge Theater, MIT

  • Keynote by D-Lab Founding Director Amy Smith
  • Introduction by MIT Vice Chancelor Ian Waitz
  • Talks by students, alumni, researchers, & community partners
  • Panel discussions
  • Product and technology showcase
  • Lunch and reception following keynote

D-Lab Community Day

Saturday, Oct. 21, 12 pm-4 pm
Kresge Barbecue Pits & D-Lab MIT N51 3rd floor

  • D-Lab Charcoal burn
  • D-Lab "Olympics"
  • Picnic
  • D-Lab Tour
  • Hands-on activities!

Celebrate some of these amazing programs with us:

D-Lab Academics: 24 MIT courses developed.
D-Lab Alumni: Over 1,800 alumni of D-Lab courses!
D-Lab Scale-Ups Fellowship: 33 social entrerpeneur fellows funded working on four continents.
D-Lab Research: Six research groups including Biomass Fuels and Cookstoves, Off-Grid Energy, Mobile Technology, Local Innovation, Agriculture & Water, and Mobility.
International Development Design Summits: 22 summits, nearly 900 innovators from more than 60 countries, who have produced more than 100 innovations!
International Innovation Centers: 20 affiliated innovation centers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
International Development Innovation Network: A five-year program supporting international summits and innovators alike.
Humanitarian Innovation: Training refugees in design and bringing refugees, internally displace people, engineers, and designers together for co-creation.
Practical Impact Alliance: A unique kind of industry consortium - world-leading organizations teamed up to develop and scale technology and business solutions to global poverty.
Creative Capacity Building: The methodology at the core of D-Lab's approach to international development at MIT and in the field.

2017 MIT Water Innovator-in-Residence Application: Due August 11!


The Innovator-in-Residence program is an opportunity at MIT supported by MIT D-Lab and the MIT Water Club. An innovator from D-Lab’s global network will be selected to visit the MIT campus for two weeks to engage in knowledge exchange with MIT students and staff, use D-Lab’s workshop and resources to work on a personal project, and participate in the MIT Water Summit. The selected fellow will receive a round-trip ticket to MIT, accommodation, a materials allowance, and per diem.


An applicant to the MIT Water Innovator-in-Residence program should meet the following requirements:

  • Have attended an International Development Design Summit or Creative Capacity Building workshop
  • Be working on a project related to water in the developing world, including agriculture, treatment/filtration technology, or sanitation and hygiene
  • Be available to come to MIT’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts for two weeks in late October to early November 2017, coinciding with the MIT Water Summit on November 6-7, 2017
  • Be willing to interact with MIT students through classes, lectures, and/or trainings


Please answer the following questions and send via email (mit-water-res@mit.edu) by August 11, 2017.

  1. What is your name?
  2. Where are you from? Where do you currently live?
  3. Please briefly describe your work and any organizations you currently work or volunteer with and how they are linked to the theme of water.
  4. List any International Development Design Summit(s) or Creative Capicity Building training(s) you have attended (include location and year).
  5. List skills you have that you would bring to the MIT innovation ecosystem and its students during your time here.
  6. As an Innovator-in-Residence, we would ask you to interact with MIT students. Please briefly describe one activity, lecture, or workshop you would be interested in providing to our students.
  7. Please tell us what you would most like to work on during your time at MIT and D-Lab. Describe the project you would like to develop, the stage it is currently in, and what resources you would need for your work to be successful. (You do not need to submit a detailed budget.)
  8. What would this residency mean to you? How would it benefit you after you went back home?
  9. Are you able to commit to traveling to MIT for two weeks in late October to early November, and attend the MIT Water Summit on November 6-7?
  10. Please tell us about any special accommodations you would need during your time as an Innovator-in-Residence.

Read more about past D-Lab visiting innovators and designers!

Questions? Contact Libby Hsu or Jona Repishti at MIT D-Lab!

Assessment of user needs and preferences related to drinking water and water filters in Uttarakhand, India

by Megha Hegde, D-Lab Research Associate

D-Lab research associate Megha Hegde (right) conducting a focus group discussion with women in a village in the Kapkot block of Bageshwar district.

The MIT D-Lab team and local university student translators. 


A woman carrying drinking water collected at a natural spring on her head.


Megha Hegde conducting interviews with women in a village.

A young man carrying water collected at a natural spring. 


View of a mountainous village in Bageshwar district where the team was doing research.

I was in Uttarakhand between January 6 and 31st to oversee a team conducting an assessment to understand current needs related to drinking water and usage of water filters. Findings of this study will be used to determine the design criteria for the xylem filter as part of a current research project, "Development of Low-Cost Water Filter Using Sapwood Xylem," with MIT principal investigators Rohit Karnik, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Amy Smith, Senior Lecturer, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Founding Director, D-Lab.

Team, local partner, and location

This trip represented my first experience as a D-Lab trip leader and I couldn't have asked for a better team. I travelled with two students: Nupur Dokras, a second year student at MIT Sloan School of Management and Caroline Morris, a Wellesley junior taking D-Lab classes. We partnered with a local NGO called People’s Science Institute (PSI) for on the ground support to implement research activities. (Because Rohit and team had previously done some research in the region and had established contacts, setting up the project in the region was that much easier.) We also hired three graduate students from Uttarakhand: Chandra, Vikram, and Deepak, to help us with translation and coordination. In addition to Amy and Rohit, our technology team members at MIT include Krithika Ramchander, PhD candidate and Tata Fellow; Luda Wang; post-doctoral fellow; and Kendra Leith, Evaluation Manager at D-Lab.

We conducted our work in two districts in Uttarakhand, Almora, and Bageshwar. In Almora we focused on the town and in Bageshwar about seven villages. Both districts are in the foothills of Himalayas, in high altitudes. We decided to do this study in Uttarakhand, because the coniferous trees are plentiful in the region and the literature suggests that there is high level of bacterial contamination in drinking water in the mountainous regions, especially in the monsoon season. 

While spellbindingly beautiful, it was extremely cold! Freezing temperatures, zero indoor heating and limited hot water made our lives a bit difficult in the beginning. All three of us got sick in the first week and almost thought that we would not be able to finish the work. But we recovered and got used to the cold and everything went almost as planned. 

Research activities

Our work include nterviews, focus groups, immersion and design workshops. We interviewed a total of 269 households, and several other stakeholders such as doctors, filter vendors and NGO staff, conducted five focus group discussions, two design workshops and few immersion activities. This gave us a very good understanding of the things on the ground. We have a great deal of data that we are currently anazlyzing.

Design workshop

I conducted my first design workshop in this trip and it was a great experience! We did two of them in two different villages. In the first workshop, more than 15 women participated, and made filter prototypes with the materials we provided. It was amazing to see the level of creativity in the women with no or very little formal education. They were too shy to even say their names out loud in the beginning, but as the workshop progressed, they opened up and finally came up with some great filter prototypes. My team and I had a lot of fun and learned so much. 

The second workshop did not go as well, women in that village did not completely trust us and were not ready to spend a lot of time with us. I think it was because the local contact was a man and did not have good rapport with the women. More than 10 women participated in the workshop, but they did not take us seriously or listened to us. They did not want to wait to make filter prototypes and left early. While leaving they literally fought us and took most of the supplies such as scissors, duck tapes and so on. While it was a bit disappointing, it was a great learning too. We learned how important it is to have a good local contact who has good relationship with people and who can bring people together. In the first village, that was the case. The local contact was a very dynamic young woman who knew everyone in the village, women trusted her, and so she was able to bring them together which resulted in a great workshop. 

Major learning/initial findings

We found that most people in Uttarakhand depend on natural spring for drinking water. In towns and cities, we saw quite a bit of filter usage, but in the villages the use of filters or any water treatment method was almost nil. Though a few people have filters at home, they don’t use them regularly. From talking to so many people, it was very clear that, their mindset about spring water was the biggest reason for low adoption of water treatment methods. Affordability was the 2nd biggest reason. It’s a common belief that spring water is the purest form of water that does not need any treatment or filtration. While that was true several decades ago, increase in human and livestock population in the recent years is leading to contamination of spring water. The doctors we interviewed reported that water borne diseases are on the rise, more in children and especially in monsoon season. But they also mentioned that some adults might have developed some level of immunity to those diseases.

Our partner NGO PSI has conducted water testing in several parts of Uttarakhand, and they reported that spring water both in towns and villages have shown bacterial contamination and is not recommended to drink without treatment. While it’s clear that there is a great potential for Rohit’s low-cost filter, it also means that people’s mindset about spring water would be the biggest hurdle for adoption. Hence, we have to find creative ways to motivate behavior change while also getting the filter design and price right.

Next steps

The next phase of our work includes data entry and analysis, internal presentation and reporting, and an exploration of opportunities to do a similar study in a different area.

Uttarakhand was mesmerizing. We saw the great Himalayas and explored some very interesting places. All places we visited were in the mountains, not much connectivity to roads. So we did a lot of hiking everyday. People were very nice and welcoming as usual. Both American and Indian students got along very well, which made the work effective and enjoyable. 

Overall the trip was a success; we learned a lot and had a lot of fun. Caroline, Nupur, and the Indian students worked very hard to get things done. We were a great team! 

Investigating user needs preferences for a low-cost water filter while gaining life perspective and cultural meaning in India

by Nupur Dokras, candidate MBA and SM Mechanical Engineering, MIT

Nupur (right) and her translator Deepak Bhatt (left) interviewing a woman in a village in Bageshwar district of Uttarakhand (center).

The team hiking up to a village.


Conduting interviews.


Design workshops with women to design mock filter prototypes. 


The MIT D-Lab team and local university student translators.








The Project and its key take-aways

The purpose of the project was to gather market data for a current MIT research project Development of Low-Cost Water Filter Using Sapwood Xylem in process under Rohit Karnik, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Amy Smith, Senior Lecturer, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Founding Director of D-Lab. Our goal was to gain an understanding of the user needs and preferences of rural people in India to determine design criteria for this kind of low-cost water filter. Although Professor Karnik has found that xylem from coniferous trees could be used to filter bacteria from water, no market data was available to determine if a product would be accepted in the market and what types of needs the product needed to address. 

I traveled to Uttarahand with D-Lab Research Associate Megha Hegde as trip leader and D-Lab student researcher and Wellesley student Caroline Morris to conduct this study. We started our project in Dehradun where we met with local partner organization People’s Science Institute (PSI) representatives to review the project details and gain local and team alignment on the projects goals, itinerary, and interview guide. Over a period of three weeks in India, we travelled to Almora, Kapkot, and Bageshwar, three towns at the base of the Himalayas to conduct the research activities. 

Working with local university students as interpreters, we hiked up and down the hills into various villages in each of the towns and approached villagers to conduct interviews. After completing nearly 100 interviews and a few design workshops, I was able to use what I learned in classes such as Global Engineering and New Enterprises to develop a set of market findings. 

The interviews gave me an inside perspective on villagers and their way of life. Some people had to walk for over an hour to gather their water several times a day. For many, water quality is not a priority as providing food for their families took precedence. Filters and maintenance parts were difficult to find in local markets as the villages were so remote. 

Other learnings and experiences

Aside from bolstering my academic learnings here at MIT, this trip has absolutely changed my outlook on life. In addition to learning about water filtration and water use, I learned so much more about a simpler way of life. I saw students walking for an hour each way to attend school. I laughed with a child as he ecstatically ran across the field when we fixed his broken plastic flip flop with duct tape. I tried on a crop basket and felt the enormous weight of the mustard plants against my back as I climbed the hill to the house. I was greeted with a cup of chai in every house I went to in spite of the fact that only enough electricity to power three LEDs was available in the entire house. I watched ladies lug gas tanks from the base of a hill to their kitchens in order to cook.

Each of these experiences has made me aware of the immense world outside the bubble I live in. Despite the challenges these villagers face, they never hesitated to offer whatever they had to ensure we were comfortable. This generosity and positivity is something that resonated with me throughout the trip and I hope to live my life with that level of positivity and generosity when I get back to my everyday routine.

Having been to Mumbai and Delhi for family trips before, I did not expect to be affected by culture shock; however, being in rural India was an incredibly different experience. I realized just how much of an adventure we were on when we had to go to ten different stores to find bottled water and had to drive for another hour to find toilet paper and gasoline! The food, though incredibly spicy, was so fresh and some of the best Indian food I have ever had. When handed an orange in a village, I was promptly given salt and spices to smear on the peeled orange. The mix of tangy and spicy flavors was unforgettable!

I was very surprised at how much I had in common with the villagers. We met one of the local guides at the town center and throughout the day we chatted about our interests and families, despite my only being able to speak in terribly broken Hindi and her being able to speak in terribly broken English. I was surprised at how quickly we were able to understand one another and become friends despite being from opposite sides of the world.

I learned to not take my life for granted and to be in a constant search for how to make a positive impact on others. Being in India made me miss seeing familiar food chains and not having to watch out for cow dung on the streets when I walked outside, as well as basic amenities such as access to electricity and light for 24 hours of the day. This experience has given me a new appreciation for a simpler life and the beauty of India. Additionally, it has given me a different perspective on how to view day to day challenges, and realize how they pale in comparison to other larger issues in the world. 

As a first generation Indian American, this trip not only allowed me to get a small taste of what life was like in my country of origin, but also gave me the opportunity to give back to a country that has defined a part of who I am. After cultivating some strong relationships with PSI, the Kumauni interns and the D-Lab team at MIT, I hope to continue to work on the development of the design of this filter during the upcoming semester. Though I loved my former work as an automotive engineer and have accepted a full time position in the industry after I graduate with my MBA and MS in Mechanical Engineering, I hope to actively participate in MIT’s social impact projects as an alumna.

I’m grateful to D-Lab for this once in a life opportunity. I know I wouldn’t have been able to learn many of these life lessons solely from the classroom. I am incredibly fortunate to have had this opportunity and will never forget the relationships I made, experiences I had, and lessons I learned!

Waste plastics recycling needs assessment and more in Uganda

by Joy Lee 

Left to right: Drew Beller '18, Joy Lee '13, and Tim Mangenello '17 stand proudly by a completed charcoal grinder. Photo: Lauren Bustamante

Plastic and chemical waste polluting a stream in an industrial area of Kampala.


Plastic wasted littering a roadside in Soroti.


Traditional three-stone fire.


An example of a “honeycomb” briquette. These briquettes are named for their shape, which allows for easy channeling of flames during use. 


Cookstove in use with bread cubes at the side.


Making banana bread pudding!





During MIT Independent Actitivies Period in January, I had the opportunity to travel with a D-Lab: Development course team to Uganda. My goals were twofold – to perform a needs assessment for a waste plastic recycling project for MIT Chapter of  Engineers Without Borders (EWB), and to support the D-Lab: Development team with their projects.

ResilientAfrica Network and waste plastic recycling needs assessment

EWB's waste plastic recycling work inititally grew out of a project taken on by a D-Lab: Develpment team in Tanzania last year (see blog post). In Tanzania, they melted plastic bags and then used the resulting material for crocheting a variety of products. EWB has been running with this work since then, and had been looking to do a needs assessment with a developing world partner. Funding from a UGC D-Lab Fieldwork grant made this possible.

We spent the first few days of our trip in Kampala, the capital city. During the course of our time in Kampala, we met with young innovators working with the ResilientAfrica Network. The teams were tackling a wide range of problems from fetal monitoring in rural towns to producing reliable sources of cooking fuel using sustainable materials. In talking further with Sophie and Pamela from the sustainable fuel team, I realized that they might benefit from the work we had done for our plastics project.

The traditional method of cooking used is with a three-stone fire fueled by logs. Unfortunately, cooking with wood over an open fire poses both an environmental risk (due to deforestation) and a health risk (open flames, smoke that irritates the eyes and airways). In a city like Kampala, it is especially important to find an alternative, sustainable source of fuel. The RAN charcoal briquette team makes briquettes using organic waste material to create char that they then mix with a binder (for example, molasses thinned with water) that holds the char together and allows them to produce “honeycomb” charcoal briquettes that are essentially smokeless. Their process starts with purchasing dry organic waste matter such as leaves and other plant clippings. They then sort the material by hand, removing trash such as plastic bags or bottles. Although this is the most painstaking step of the process, they are unable to use the non-organic waste, and discard those items. 

This provided me with an opportunity to assess the feasibility of, and interest in, turing this extracted plastic waste into something useful. The current plastic melting procedure developed by EWB uses readily available items such as a large cooking pot, vegetable oil, and wooden molds. While in Uganda, I was able to build a simple wooden mold with Sophie and Pamela for them to use in testing their setup. They were able to easily purchase the other items in Kampala, and were planning to begin testing. One of their asks from the EWB team is that we partner with them to test different types of filler material to see what will bind well with the plastic. Although plastic is plentiful, other materials such as sand are cheaper and will add the volume needed to create larger items. (As a general reference point, roughly half a shopping bag will make a thin square of molded plastic about 1”x 1”x 1/4”). We look forward to seeing where the project goes from here.

Innovation workshop

I also had the opportunity to work with the D-Lab: Development team on their projects – running a youth innovation workshop and improving ventilation for a charcoal grinder machine. (See Rachel and Drew’s post for more details on these projects.) One of the more rewarding aspects of the trip for me was the chance to work with the kids and briquette factory workers in Soroti to discuss with them some ways we stimulate creative thinking and approach design solutions. It was  rewarding to see them get excited about developing their own designs and build prototypes to test them. As Drew, Tim, and I worked with them over the course of our two weeks in Soroti, we saw them build their confidence for trying out new methods and designs. I especially wanted to pass along one of the lessons that I learned as a student at MIT – it’s okay if your design doesn’t work the first time. I explained that just because something doesn’t work at first doesn’t mean that you should give up on that design concept entirely. It probably needs some tweaking and some additional testing, and perhaps you will find after some more testing that you can identify the flaw in your design. In other words, keep at it until you’ve tried everything! (And please take the appropriate safety precautions at every step!)

Health issues and working conditions

One of the things that I learned in Uganda is how easily people can develop serious health issues because of unsafe working conditions. My entire life, I’ve been told not to look at the sun, to wear close-toed shoes when working with machinery, and to be careful with wearing loose clothing around open flames. When we were in Soroti, one of the cookstove factory workers came to work in the morning with red, watery eyes. He said his eyes were hurting so badly even with sunglasses on that all he could do was to sit in the shade. He asked for eyedrops and painkillers (which we discovered are what people use frequently to treat their symptoms of extended exposure to light from welding). We explained that looking at the light from welding could cause permanent eye damage, and that treating the symptoms was not enough. It was hard to watch my new friend in so much pain – especially when it was easily preventable. One of my takeaways from this trip is that there is a need to not only improve the technological tools in developing countries, but also train people how to safely and effectively use the new technology. Improving people’s quality of life hinges not only on access to better infrastructure and technology, but also on access to information about how to live safer, healthier lives. 

Banana bread pudding!

I wish I could share more about my trip to Uganda because it was a challenging, but incredibly rewarding experience. In the limited space I have, I will share one fun experience with you – making banana bread pudding. It’s a tradition to cook dinner for the Soroti-based team on our last night in town. Our team was planning a menu and realized that with the easy access to bananas, we could bake banana bread for dessert. The only problem was that only bakeries have ovens. In an effort to improvise, I decided to make banana bread pudding. (Pictures are below. We were outside and it got dark as I was cooking so the final dish looks pretty gray.) Overall, it was fun – I had six-year-olds helping me make it, and I got to try cooking on a charcoal-fueled cookstove! The texture was similar to oatmeal in the end, but the flavor was great. It’s something I would try out here in Boston with not-crumbly bread.

I’d encourage everyone who has a chance to work on a D-Lab project to do so and I’d also like to thank the D-Lab team, the EWB team, our partners in Uganda, and the UGC for making this trip possible. 


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