The MIT D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship program — which offers one year of support to social entrepreneurs bringing technology-based, poverty-alleviating products to market at scale — has announced its 2015 fellows.
The new D-Lab Scale-Ups fellows are MIT alumni Elliot Avila '14, Kristin Kagetsu '12, Sidhanth Kamath MBA '15, and two members of the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN), Betty Ikalany and Julio Lavalle. Each social entrepreneur will receive a $20,000 grant; tailored mentoring, skills-building, and networking opportunities; a fellows’ retreat; and an invitation to the MIT Scaling Development Ventures conference. “D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowships fund a critical stage in the inventor and entrepreneur’s journey,” says Jennifer Keller Jackson, senior program officer at VentureWell. During the 12-month fellowship, these entrepreneurs will work to retire risk in technical feasibility and market viability in order to position their ventures for investment, partnership, and growth.
Since the fellowship program’s launch in 2012, D-Lab Scale-Ups has sponsored 23 fellows working on four continents in sectors including agriculture, energy, water, healthcare, housing, mobility, recycling, and personal finance. This year’s fellows’ ventures cover a wide gamut of sectors. “From commercial permaculture to sanitary pads to an app that promotes financial inclusion, we’re delighted to support these five new entrepreneurs and their ventures,” said Eric Reynolds, who manages the fellowship program at D-Lab.
Saathi sanitary pads (India)
New D-Lab Scale-Ups fellow Kristin Kagetsu is co-founder of Saathi, a company based in Ahmedabad, India, that has developed a small-scale manufacturing process to produce affordable sanitary pads from waste banana tree fiber. "The fellowship is coming at a great time for us," Kagetsu says. "We are at a unique stage where we're finalizing our technology and setting up our supply chain.”
Saathi's innovations lie in its use of banana fiber and the development of its manufacturing solution. The Saathi machine takes inputs of absorbent fiber pulp and other materials and produces a folded, sterilized sanitary pad complete with wings and adhesives for undergarment attachments. “The fellowship gives us the ability to develop our technology further and refine our process so that we can make sure we have the best product out there,” Kagetsu explains. And how will the pads get out there? Saathi is considering an "Avon lady"-like model of distribution — proven effective in similar markets — in which local women sell the product door-to-door, with the goal of not only selling pads, but creating opportunities for health education as well.
Mechanized multicrop thresher (Tanzania)
Elliot Avila is a new D-Lab Scale-Ups fellow, but not new to D-Lab. While an MIT undergraduate, he took three D-Lab classes, traveled to India, Tanzania, and Nigeria on D-Lab projects, and attended the International Development Design Summit in 2014. He has been working to refine and develop the multicrop thresher, his Scale-Ups project, since he was a junior. The product, initially developed in class and later developed as a human-powered machine by Global Cycle Solutions in Tanzania, has evolved into a mechanized processor, capable of decreasing the time required thresh a sack of rice from three hours to just 10 minutes. It is also more affordable than other threshing machinery, and portable so that micro-entrepreneurs can easily use the machine to provide threshing service to their target customers: rural smallholder farmers.
“I'm really looking forward to working on the multi-crop thresher in Tanzania for the next year as a Scale-Ups fellow," says Avila. "Right now, my project is moving into an exciting stage where it can be introduced to a wider audience that will benefit from it. The fellowship offers a great opportunity for me and other like-minded entrepreneurs to get the help and support necessary to reach that stage, to move from prototype to product.”
AEST agricultural waste charcoal (Uganda)
“Our briquettes are smokeless, so they save many people from respiratory health problems, which kill so many women and children,” explains new D-Lab Scale-Ups fellow Betty Ikalany. “They are cheaper and burn longer so families and institutions can save the amount spent on fuel.” Like Avila, Ikalany is no stranger to D-Lab. She met D-Lab founder Amy Smith more than three years ago when Smith introduced her to the D-Lab charcoal press. Ikalany, already experimenting with agricultural waste charcoal production, started using the press right away with her social nonprofit Teso Women Development Initiatives (TEWDI) Uganda.
Today, Ikalany and her team operate Appropriate Energy Saving Technologies (AEST), a social business enterprise registered by women to produce charcoal briquettes and cookstoves for urban and peri-urban households and institutions in the Teso region of Uganda. For two years, Ikalany and AEST participated in the Harvest Fuel Initiative, a joint project of D-Lab and The Charcoal Project. In that time, AEST transitioned beyond the D-Lab hand press to a diesel-powered extruder and has grown to a staff of 20. In 2014, Ikalany participated in an International Development Design Summit (IDDS) in Tanzania. As a result of her IDDS participation, and with support from the U.S. Global Development Lab, she became eligible for the Scale-Ups fellowship and is now a member of the 2015 fellowship cohort.
GreenPath Food (Ethiopia)
New Scale-Ups fellow Sidanth Kamath, a co-founder of GreenPath Food and its general manager, is tackling challenges of food supply in Ethiopia by focusing on supports to production. GreenPath food is improving crop production for smallholder farmers through its Nucleus Farming Platform System. These nucleus sites will be set up in target farming areas, and will house the technologies and expertise needed for local smallholder farmers to transition to high-yield sustainable agriculture techniques also known as permaculture. Platforms will also act as harvest aggregation and storage points, including cold stores. Each platform is designed to support 100 families each farming one hectare on average.
"GreenPath is extremely excited to join the program at MIT D-Lab," says Kamath, a graduate of the MIT Sloan School of Management. "We are honored to receive this validation of our efforts thus far, and hope to use it as a springboard to help our Ethiopian farmers operate world-class sustainable farms. "
PoupaCerto mobile application for financial services (Brazil)
Personal finance is a new sector for D-Lab Scale-Ups, but where there is social need, a social entrepreneur may tackle the problem. Julio Lavalle, an IDIN network member, is doing just that in Brazil. In Brazil, hyperinflation and currency volatility have encouraged people to spend rather than save. Deeply rooted cultural values have made disorganized spending and consumption one of the only ways to demonstrate social status.
Lavalle, one of the 2015 Scale-Ups fellows, is addressing the savings crisis in Brazil through a mobile application that allows those without access to banking services to organize their budget, track spending, define and track savings goals, and achieve those goals through motivational and tangible rewards. The PoupaCerto app, which is available for free on the Google Play store, is easy to use and, once downloaded, does not require an Internet connection. Lavalle expressed enthusiasm at participating in the D-Lab Scale-Ups program: “We see the opportunity to work with the Scale-Ups team as the necessary step to take our venture to the next level on the product development as well as on the business side. ... Being part of a strong ecosystem of multi-market tech-based solutions and entrepreneurs at one of the best-known schools for leading innovations in technology gives us a strong support and reassurance of choosing the right path for PoupaCerto,” Lavalle says.
Growth and impact of the D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship program
Founded in 2012 with support from the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Enterprises, the yearlong Scale-Ups fellowship program was originally open to only MIT alumni. Today, with additional funding from the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN) — headquartered at D-Lab and funded by the U.S. Global Development Lab — Scale-Ups is able to offer fellowships to IDIN network members.
As the program and its fellows have reached increasing scale, the number of applicants has increased as well. This year, the program saw a greater than 120 percent increase in eligible applicants from the previous year. Since its start, Scale-Ups fellows have raised over $3 million in additional investment and generated over $731,000 in revenues.