The D-Lab Network: Intricate, Tightly Woven, and Colorful!

Victor Grau Serrat, D-Lab Co-Director












Colorful and intricately woven textiles are a common sight in rural Guatemalan markets, like the one I wandered through in Nebaj with my D-Lab colleague Kofi Taha when we launched a program there earlier this month. 

As eye-catching as these traditional fabrics are, I was fascinated by the process of weaving them, with their myriad short threads skillfully intertwined. 

The way in which D-Lab’s rich network of programs has evolved and the patterns of crisscrossed relationships that have emerged remind me of these Mayan textiles. I am amazed when I look closely at the densely woven patterns of people, programs, and stories that have become D-Lab. And I know that just as the complexity of a Mayan textile makes it both durable and beautiful, that something similar is true for the fabric of D-Lab.

Using the October issue of the D-Lab Digest, I am going to attempt to reveal to you the intricacies of connections and patterns that exist in our people and programs, highlighting the connections between the featured stories.

Mitesh Gala, featured as a new Scale-Ups fellow, participated in the 2010 International Development Design Summit (IDDS) and holds an MBA from Colorado State University, a consortium partner of the International Development Innovation Network

Mitesh’s Jarna Pump (India) is a class project this semester of D-Lab: Design for Scale that instructor Eric Reynolds blogs about. Other projects of this class are Ghonsla (Pakistan) by Zehra Ali, also a Scale-Ups fellow, and JustMilk (South Africa) founded by Stephen Gerrard (D-Lab: 2006 and IDDS alumnus: 2008, 2009, 2010) and others. 

Stephen attended the same 2010 IDDS summit as Mitesh, and the coordination of that summit brought Eric to D-Lab that same year. Eric’s co-instructor, Harald Quintus-Bosz, has been also instructing and organizing IDDS for six years (and overlapped with all of them in 2010). 

Moving forward four years, there is a video feature of IDDS 2014 (Tanzania). Around minute 4:16, IDDS participant and D-Lab alumnus Elliot Avila chats with villagers about avocado processing. As part of the D-Lab: Development class, Elliot worked on the making of artisanal, natural-dye crayons in Avani (India). 

Avani is the community partner in Northern India for D-Lab Study Abroad that instructor Libby Hsu (co-instructor for D-Lab: Development and D-Lab: Energy) reports on from her recent visit

Coming back to Elliot, he did his undergraduate thesis on designing a cargo tricycle for Wecyclers (Nigeria), founded by Scale-Ups fellow Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, and is now working at Global Cycle Solutions, founded by D-Lab Scale-Ups fellow Jodie Wu in Tanzania. 

Like Elliot, Betty Ikalany attended IDDS 2014 in Tanzania, and is featured as Ugandan Innovator and Energy Champion. Betty is the CEO and founder of Teso Women Development Initiatives (TEWDI), a Ugandan enterprise supported by the Scale-Ups Harvest Fuel Initiative (HFI). 

As part of HFI, D-Lab researcher Dan Sweeney provides technical support to TEWDI, and traveled with a group of D-Lab: Development students to Uganda to work on the improvement of charcoal production and do emissions testing of stoves. This very same emissions testing is what brought Dan to Guatemala to do clean cookstove field tests with Soluciones Comunitarias, with whom Kofi Taha and I are partnering with to bring the Creative Capacity Building (CCB) methodology to Guatemala

Interestingly, Kofi and Amy first met Betty in Uganda on their way to deliver some CCB trainings in the North of the country. And equally interesting, one of the projects that Libby is considering in Avani is how to use the residue from a gasifier to make charcoal briquettes - the same charcoal briquettes that fuel Betty’s TWEDI in Uganda.

In light of this, an opportunity to rebrand ourselves may emerge -- how about...

D-Lab: Weavers of Lives!

Read Victor's blog about his recent trip with Kofi Taha to Guatemala
Kicking off Grassroots Innovation in Guatemala

Contact Victor Grau Serrat

D-Lab Study Abroad: Setting up the program with Avani

Libby Hsu, D-Lab Instructor & Study Abroad Coordinator

Avani's entrance sign.

Libby Hsu at Avani.

Terraced hills near Digoli.

IDDS 2014 alumni Ritesh Singhania, an Avani staff member with children at Avani's main campus.

The long drive through Uttarakhand province.


D-Lab Study Abroad 2015: Avani

On October 11, I returned from a fast-paced, 10-day trip to India and a nongovernmental organization called Avani, which was established in 1997 and is located in the mountainous northern province of Uttarakhand. The purpose was to investigate living conditions and projects for the three MIT students who will be participating in the D-Lab Study Abroad program next semester. They will live at Avani for 11 weeks and work on projects that fulfill course and thesis requirements, all while taking MIT classes remotely.

D-Lab and Avani: five years of collaboration

D-Lab has been working with Avani since 2009, sending small groups of students from the D-Lab: Development class to live and work on projects over MIT's Independent Activities Period which takes place during January of each year.

D-Lab students have engaged local community members seeking to earn income through projects involving production of natural dyes, crayons, charcoal and its use in cooking, knitting techniques, and more, as well as educational work at the Montessori school that Avani runs for the children of its employees.

The long trip to Avani

This was my first time visiting India, and it was quite a first experience to have. The journey from Boston to Avani takes 36+ hours: flying to Delhi, then boarding a train for 6 hours and finally hiring a driver to take you up 200 km of winding mountain roads over a span of about 7 hours. Due to my time constraints, I did it without any breaks and still had only 6 days at Avani itself!

Laying the groundwork for a safe and successful program

Planning this program, in a way that makes everyone feel safe and confident, would have been nearly impossible over Skype. I spent time talking over our shared philosophies and goals with Avani's leadership, and got to know many of the other employees and the roles they play in the community.

I also had a chance to observe the difficult lives people lead in some of the very remote areas where Avani works. Some of these communities have recently gotten cell phone and Internet access, yet they are still inaccessible by road and lack basic amenities like toilets, clean water, and a heat source during the (very cold) winters. It's jarring to observe these disparities that have arisen from the market forces in India.

Identifying projects: soapnuts!

I identified several interesting projects centered around Avani's existing operations. One involves soapnuts, which women in remote communities grind and package for Avani to sell. If you haven't heard of soapnuts, look 'em up - they're awesome! However, the women have complained that they breathe in too much dust when they pulverize and package the nuts. With the goal of keeping operations decentralized, students could work with the community to create a better technology that addresses this issue.

Identifying projects: pine needle gasifier

Avani recently started an 80-kW power plant operated by gasifying pine needles. How awesome is that?! They're not up to full capacity yet, though. All of my students are interested in energy, so a few design challenges in this area would be right up their alley.

For example, the needle drying and loading processes are very rough, and more complicated during the rainy season, so they could use improvement. The residue from the gasifier is also used to make charcoal briquettes, but the plant operators need a better method of efficiently creating those briquettes from the 300 kg of residue they anticipate producing each day when the plant is up to full capacity.

For more information on D-Lab Study Abroad, contact Libby Hsu.


MIT D-Lab-Affiliated Social Enterprise ayzh to Develop Healthy Newborn Kit in Support of United Nations Strategy for Maternal and Child Health

ayzh CEO and Co-Founder Zubaida Bai is a D-Lab Scale-Ups Fellow and International Development Innovation Network (IDIN) network member.

Founded in 2010, ayzh is a social venture dedicated to improving women's maternal health worldwide. 

MIT D-Lab-affiliated social venture ayzh has been selected to help advance the United Nations’ Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, approved by the World Health Assembly this spring.

Just one of 17 social ventures selected from the private sector to support the strategy, ayzh will leverage its strength and reputation as an innovative developer of health and livelihood solutions for women in resource-poor settings, to develop a product focused on newborn health.

The first product developed by ayzh was the two-dollar Clean Birth Kit in a Purse, which has been used in countries including Afghanistan, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, India, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda. So far, ayzh estimates that it has supported over 120,000 mothers and newborns in its work to provide access to sanitary births worldwide.

Now, building on the success of the Clean Birth Kit, ayzh will develop a Healthy Newborn Kit, intended to be an affordable, innovative, and culturally appropriate set of tools for women giving birth in resource-poor countries. The kit will include the simple tools recommended by the World Health Organization to reduce the incidence of infection at the time of birth, and to provide thermal care and early feeding support. This year, ayzh will pilot 1,000 kits before developing a final prototype for commercial launch.

In addition to designing and producing Healthy Newborn Kits, azyh will support the UN’s global strategy by offering educational SMS message to healthcare workers caring for women who pregnant.

“We are very proud to take part in this movement,” said ayzh co-founder and CEO Zubaida Bai. “The work of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health is aligned with our vision for women’s and newborn health and the growth of those opportunities.”

Zubaida founded ayzh with her husband Habib Anwar and is currently participating in the D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship program for social entrepreneurs. But her and Habib's association with D-Lab stretches backs to 2007 when they participated for the first time in the International Development Design Summit (IDDS). IDDS, an annual five-week gathering of innovators from around the world has been co-organized by D-Lab for the past eight years and is now the centerpiece of the D-Lab-based, USAID-funded, International Development Innovation Network (IDIN). As IDDS alumni, Zubaida and Habib are active members of the IDIN network of nearly 400 inventors, innovators, and social entrepreneurs around the world. 

You can read more about Zubaida's work with ayzh in this recent blog on the Wall Street Journal's Live Mint. 

For more information about ayzh, please contact Habib Anwar at habib@ayzh.com.

IDIN, CITE, D-Lab Scale-Ups, and Tufts University Host Convening to Explore Human-Centered Approach to Respectful, Right-Sized Research


Photo by Emily Kate Moon. 

Photo by Emily Kate Moon. 

Photo by Emily Kate Moon. 

This month, 50 development researchers, practitioners, and donors from an array of influential institutions came together at MIT’s D-Lab to jointly develop guiding principles for “Lean Research,” a human-centered approach to development research that is respectful, relevant, rigorous, and right-sized.

The daylong convening was organized by the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN), the Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE), and D-Lab Scale-Ups in partnership with faculty members at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. Participants included representatives from J-PAL, the Legatum Center at MIT, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, USAID’s Global Development Lab, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the SEEP Network, Oxfam, Save the Children, MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, Bankable Frontier Associates, and others.

Our interest in creating an initiative on lean research stems from our shared observation that the act of research itself is often a significant intervention into the lives of the people we are researching.  If our programs and projects in development are intended to improve people’s wellbeing, our research into the effectiveness of those programs should be done in a way that also produces positive impacts for those who participate. Lean research places the positive experience of the research participant at the center of the research design and employs “right-sized” methods and protocol that do only what is actually necessary to produce rigorous findings that are actionable and have relevance to the key stakeholders in the research process.  

The daylong convening generated significant interest in the lean research framework, with participants calling for the development of lean research standards that their organizations can sign onto and suggesting a number of concrete steps to move the initiative forward. These include continuing to refine the lean research framework, potentially developing a prize in lean research, and developing a platform to enable us to work together on implementing these principles into our research endeavors.  

You can read more about lean research and the guiding principles we developed at the convening in this post by co-organizer Kim Wilson. You can also read about the event from the perspective of participant Alex Counts, president and CEO of the Grameen Foundation, who shares his thoughts on next steps on his blog

If you are interested in learning more about Lean Research or joining the group that is working to move this initiative forward, please contact IDIN’s Research Coordinator, Elizabeth Hoffecker Moreno. 

D-Lab Waste, D-Lab Biodiversity, and CoLab Team-Up to Investigate the Impact of Plastic on Nicaragua's Caribbean Coastline

Charlotte Allen Seid, Graduate Student





Community Innovators Lab, D-Lab: Biodiversity, and D-Lab: Waste recently teamed up to provide research on the impact of plastic waste on sea life on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coastline. The research project was part of a regional waste management program designed in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The D-Lab research team, comprised of instructors Libby McDonald and Ariel Phillips, biology Ph.D. student Charlotte Seid, and Nicaraguan diver and ecologist Fabio Buitrago, returned last week from their fieldwork on the Corn Islands where they explored how the influx of plastic bottles has affected coral reef fish and the communities who depend on them for fishing and tourism. 

Waste and recycling is a serious challenge for islands on the Caribbean Coast where tourism produces increased volumes of plastic waste, of which the biggest culprits are water bottles. Plastic is especially challenging in that it is expensive to transport to recycling companies located in cities on the other side of Central America. Furthermore, unlike traditional materials such as wood and coconut husks, plastic does not biodegrade when it is dumped into waterways. 

Using SCUBA and snorkeling gear, biology student Charlotte Seid and Nicaraguan ecologist Fabio Buitrago collected and catalogued underwater debris at seven key sites around Big Corn Island. Near the most populated areas, the shallow seagrass beds were littered with cans, bottles, and food packaging. The deeper, farther reefs appeared to be plastic-free. At this moment—while the outer reefs are still clean—it is critical to rethink waste management on the Corn Islands.  

Fortunately the alcaldía, or local government, is deeply committed to the environment and is working with the MIT team to implement innovative ideas that simultaneously provide drinking water to residents and tourists and keep plastic bottles off the islands. For example, local residents shared memories of using metal cans or gourds to carry water from central locations; perhaps similarly sustainable containers could be combined with a network of water filtration sites.

With help from the local seafood companies Pasenic and Central American Fisheries, nearly 300 fish stomachs were inspected and no plastic was found—a reassuring result. Additionally, to determine which fish species could potentially be impacted by plastic pollution and to track biodiversity over time, more than 50 species were identified and catalogued. The biodiversity snapshot produced by the study is important for understanding threats such as overfishing and human-introduced invasive species. To further protect fish biodiversity, the D-Lab team collected samples for two non-profit repositories of marine species genomes, one in Nicaragua and one near Boston. We’re looking forward to publicizing our results in an article, so stayed tuned this fall!

To learn more, check out this video made by Fabio of a hermit crab inspecting a plastic bottle!


Nineteen student teams and five individual students present designs for the developing world at D-Lab Spring Showcase

Nancy Adams, D-Lab Scale-Ups Communications Administrator

A large crowd gathered for the Showcase!

Showing off the Biodigeter Latrine project.

Explaining the Gasifying Stove.

Presenting the Hydropower Station project.

D-Lab Prosthetics project on display.

D-Lab's Amy Smith and D:Lab Design instructor Rick Schuhmann.

D-Lab is often best known for its cournerstone course, D-Lab Development, taught for over a decade by D-Lab founder, Amy Smith, and Bish Sanyal, Professor of Urban Development and Planning. In fact, ask an MIT student if they have experience with D-Lab and you often get the answer, "Yeah, I took D-Lab."

What seems to be less widely known is that after 12 years, D-Lab has developed a couple of additional courses, 19 courses in total, to be exact. Though not every course is taught every year, about a dozen different courses are.

Student projects from five of those courses were presented on May 9 at the 2014 D-Lab Spring Student Showcase. It was standing room only in D-Lab's "hands-on" classroom on the third floor of E-51 with over 150 in attendance to hear about projects from five D-Lab classes, an independent study, and our current group of D-Lab Biomass Fuel undergraduate researchers. 

 To kick things off, students gave  brief slide presentations, following which, attendees were able to view all the working prototypes on display throughout the D-Lab space and talk to the students.

Following is a list of projects:

D-Lab: Design. Instructors — Rick Schuhmann + Aron Zingman

  • SODIS in a Box. Developing a solar water disinfection system suitable for providing clean drinking water for a family of five living in a refugee camp in Uganda.
  • Recoplastic Washer Dryer. A system for cleaning plastic waste collected by waste pickers in Nigeria before being recycled.
  • Off Grid Blower for Gasifying Cookstove. A system for eliminating dependence on grid electricity for a gasifying cookstove blower in Zambia.
  • Mud Brick Mold. Improved multiple mud brick manufacturing mold for use in Uganda, using only available and affordable materials.

D-Lab: Dissemination WASH. Instructor — Susan Murcott

  • Ways2Clean. Redesigning the waste management system for Dinajpur, Banglasesh with workshops, sorting in collection vehicles, and streaming of recyclables.
  • Bamboo Charcoal Water Filter. Developing the use of an activated bamboo charcoal layer on top of a bio-sand water filter to remove heavy metals and organic waste from polluted river water in Banjaran, Indonesia.
  • Kom Zibu. An irrigation system that collects and distributes water to support reforestation efforts in Gburma, Northern Ghana.
  • MyH2O. One of the first crowd-sourcing mapping platforms on water quality in China, designed to prompt water risk awareness, citizen activism and governmental responses through computer-based as well as mobile app platforms.
  • WaSH4India. Scaling sanitation interventions in India. Summer pilot to make one village open-defecation free (ODF). Post-summer creation of website to inspire and train volunteers to reach 600 million Indians.

D-Lab: Education. Instructors — Jessica Huang + Pedro Cuéllar + Heather Beem

  • Science in Action. A sustainable education model incorporating hands-on activities into science lessons using local resources at the senior secondary school in New Longoro, Ghana.
  • Sustainable Schools Project. Working with FATEM to develop a model whereby economic activities help build cohesion and sustain community schools in isolated rural areas in Haiti.
  • Community School Support. Collaborating on trans-generational finance workshops and hands-on engineering education at a community school in Northern Colombia.
  • Interactive Entrepreneurship Workshops. Working with OneHen to empower youth to become social entrepreneurs at the Kasiisi Project’s network of 14 government primary schools in Western Uganda.

D-Lab: Biodiversity. Advisor — Ariel Phillips

  • Plastic Pollution, Fish, and Surveying the impacts of plastic marine debris on fish and fishing communities Public Health in the Caribbean.

D-Lab: Energy. Instructors — Libby Hsu + Amit Ghandi

  • Biodigester Latrine System. A modified urine-diversion latrine that can be connected to a biodigester for the conversion of human waste into energy.
  • Acai Pits. Gasification of acai berry pits, currently a waste product in the Amazon, for their use as a fuel source.
  • Hydropower Station. Conversion of a dammed area in a river to a hydropower station that can substitute for the use of diesel generators in an Amazon community.

D-Lab: Prosthetics. Instructors — David Sengeh + David Hill + Bryan Ranger + Katy Olesnavage + Katerina Mantzavinou

  • Shock Absorbing Pylon. A module that interfaces with existing pylons used in developing countries to lower ground reaction forces on the prosthetic side and thus increase user comfort.
  • Silicone Sleeve & Buckle Pin. A new suspension system for lower-limb prostheses, similar to what is currently used in the western world but for a fraction of the cost.
  • 2D to 3D Modeling for Prosthetic Socket Manufacturing. A process to go from 2D images taken with a cell phone camera to a 3D model from which a socket can be built.

D-Lab Biomass Fuel UROPs. Supervisor — Dan Sweeney

Technical evaluation of traditional and improved cooking fuels and stoves in Uganda
McCall Huston is creating a data analysis tool and compiling data from field experiments performed in Uganda during IAP to quantify the benefits and impacts of using waste-derived fuels and improved cook stoves.

Instrumentation and data acquisition for laboratory cooking fuel evaluations
Harry Thaman has developed a LabView based system for measuring important efficiency and emissions indicators during fuel and cook stove evaluations in D-Lab’s Fuel Testing Facility.

Physical and chemical characterization of charcoal briquette fuels
Harry Thaman is using advanced analytical methods available at MIT to determine important material properties of carbonized agricultural residues used to make charcoal briquettes by local producers in East Africa.

Efficiency and emissions performance laboratory testing of carbonized briquette fuels
Isabella DiDio is performing laboratory evaluations of charcoal briquette fuels made by D-Lab partners in Uganda and Tanzania to understand benefits to users and the environment, and characteristics needing improvement.

Development of an improved small-scale charcoal kiln
Nani Ruiz and students in MIT Engineers Without Borders are evaluating efficiency and emissions performance of existing kiln technologies to understand how to improve upon them while maintaining low-cost and simple operation.

For more information on all D-Lab courses, see the D-Lab MIT Courses page. D-Lab's goal is to challenge talented students to use their math, science, engineering, social science, and business skills to tackle a broad range of global poverty issues. 



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