D-Lab's First Annual Report

Earlier this year, MIT D-Lab released its annual report for the 2013 - 2014 year. Being the first comprehensive report of activities that we have put out since the program inception 12 years ago, we look farther back than this last academic year to put into perspective our current programs. 

The 16 packed and colorful pages that constitute the report provide a very easy to read, high level overview of what keeps us all busy and focused at D-Lab. The report covers our academics and educational programs, D-Lab Scale-Ups, the International Development Innovation Network, the Comprehensive Initiative on Technology EvaluationCreative Capacity Building and the Youth program. Several shorter articles spotlight featured parts of our operations such as our impeccable workshop, the designers-in-residence program, and our decade-long work on agricultural waste charcoal.

Grab your mug, pour your favorite drink, sit back and enjoy reading what we have been up to for the past year in and out of the lab, and get a peek into where we are going next. Short of joining for a tour of D-Lab, reading our annual report gives you a good sense of what's happening at D-Lab.Enjoy!

D-Lab Student Fieldwork, January 2015














D-Lab: Development students are gearing up for another round of unforgettable international experiences during MIT's January Independent Activities Period, living and working with community partners across Latin America and Africa. 

Six students are working on establishing a new community relationship and planning a future design summit.

El Salvador
Four students are engaging in creative capacity building and co-creation with at-risk urban teenagers, and two students identifying cheaper improved toilet designs for rural populations.

Three students are working on projects for MoringaConnect, an agricultural startup founded by D-Lab alumni Kwami Williams and Emily Cunningham.

Six students are collaborating with local university students on sustainable housing and energy projects for rural populations, such as improved cookstoves and insulation.

Six students are evaluating and building on projects and designs created as part of the 2014 International Development Design Summit.

Five students are collaborating with local innovators in the fields of agricultural charcoal and education.

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.


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