When it comes to really improving the lives of some of the world’s poorest people, the first step can be as simple as handing them sheets of paper.
That was the first exercise in classes taught by MIT D-Lab founder Amy Smith and graduate student Kofi Taha during workshops they held last year in Uganda, one of Africa’s most impoverished and war-ravaged nations. To get the villagers thinking creatively about addressing some of their own problems and concerns, Smith and Taha posed a challenge for them: They were asked to engineer a way, using just two sheets of ordinary paper, to support several ears of corn up off the ground.
For the workshop participants — rural people being relocated back to their small, remote villages after more than a decade interned in camps for those displaced by Uganda’s internal warfare — the challenge was daunting at first. But they quickly took to it, devising a great variety of clever ways to support the corn with cylinders, cones and cups made by folding (no gluing or cutting allowed) the sheets of paper. Right away, they began to feel more capable, and more ready for their next challenges.
The idea, as opposed to past D-Lab projects focused on devising specific gadgets to address particular local problems in developing countries, was “to inspire people to take that design process and apply it to whatever problems they come across,” Taha explains. In short, to adapt an old metaphor: Rather than giving people a fish, or even teaching them how to fish, they are trying to teach people how to go about inventing whole new ways of fishing that are adapted to their own local materials and conditions.
The idea was born, as so many are, from necessity: Typically, when Smith and her D-Lab colleagues travel to developing countries, they demonstrate how to build some of the specific technologies they have developed over the years, such as devices for making charcoal briquettes out of carbonized agricultural waste, or pedal-powered devices for grinding corn or sharpening tools. To do so, they usually work with local artisans who have the skills and tools to do welding and carpentry. But in these devastated villages of Uganda, “those kinds of local skills were not readily available,” Taha explains. “So we tried something new.”
Over the course of a three-day workshop, they demonstrated some specifics, such as how to make simple hand-held devices for removing the kernels from an ear of corn. The villagers eagerly absorbed these techniques and built their own copies of the tried-and-true devices. “People were so excited about learning how to do it themselves,” Taha says.
They then started designing devices of their own. One task for the workshop was to develop a device to help speed up the threshing of peanuts, a major local staple. “Over 15 different ideas came out of the workshops,” Taha says. When the different prototypes were lined up for all the participants to see, “people were astounded at the variety of ways you could approach the problem.”
But it was what happened next that really impressed Smith, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering, and Taha, a master’s student in urban planning. When they returned to the villages five months after the training sessions, they found that there had been a blossoming of creative inventiveness.
First of all, the participants had produced 100 of the corn-shelling tools, and were selling them to their fellow villagers. In addition, some of the students in the workshop, entirely on their own, had designed and made a hand-carved press for processing sugar cane. And, to protect their food supply, one participant had even invented a better mousetrap (or rat trap) — an ingenious design shaped like a lobster pot with a tapered opening the animal can easily enter, but not exit. The device was made out of wire the villager obtained by burning a tire and recovering its radial-ply wires.
“People made things that had nothing to do with the technologies we showed them,” Taha says — which was exactly the outcome they had hoped for.
Smith refers to this process as “creative capacity building” — in other words, giving people a sense of how to design the solutions to their own problems. “It places the expertise in the village instead of at MIT,” Taha says. The local people know what the tasks are that they need to do, so the idea is to get them to “take that expertise you have, and develop a tool that helps you to do it better.”
In one of the villages, some of the people were having to make eight trips a day to fill cans with water from a well more than two miles away. But after the workshops, they figured out a way to make a cart out of an old metal bed frame they found. It was big enough to haul eight cans at once, saving them seven daily round trips — and providing extra income, as they then rented the cart to others to haul logs and other things.
Now, villagers have begun to create their own technology workshops, and Smith and Taha are collaborating with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and Caritas Uganda to set up “technology centers” in rural Uganda where tools can be provided, devices can be designed and prototypes built, and some locally produced devices can be sold to people from the surrounding area — helping to pay for the materials and keep the process going. The first such center, in the town of Pader, opened a week ago.
The D-Lab team has been extending the concept to other places, including Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Haiti.
“A lot of this work is not just about the process or the technology,” Taha says. “It’s about how you treat people, about respect, honoring their own intelligence. That’s a critical component of any kind of successful development, in any context, whether it’s in Boston or Botswana.”
In The World explores the ways members of the MIT community are developing technology — from the appropriately simple to the cutting edge — to help meet the needs of communities around the planet, especially those in the developing world. If you have suggestions for future columns, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.