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In the World: Design summit’s inventions find willing buyers

Devices to improve lives in developing countries are so appealing that even the initial prototypes attract buyers.
Members of a team that developed a system for generating gas from agricultural waste, which is attached to a small engine to generate power for charging cellphones, demonstrate their prototype at a village in Ghana.
Members of a team that developed a system for generating gas from agricultural waste, which is attached to a small engine to generate power for charging cellphones, demonstrate their prototype at a village in Ghana.
Photos courtesy of the 2011 IDDS teams
A prototype of a device for shelling seeds from the moringa tree was so appealing that visitors were interested in buying it on the spot.
A prototype of a device for shelling seeds from the moringa tree was so appealing that visitors were interested in buying it on the spot.
Photos courtesy of the 2011 IDDS teams

It was a simple device, consisting of two thin metal sheets mounted so one could be pulled horizontally across the other (which had tiny bumps on its surface), leaving just a narrow gap in between. But as simple as it was, the contraption was capable of quickly and efficiently stripping the husks off tiny seeds from a tree called moringa — a trick that could make the versatile plant into a more profitable cash crop for poor farmers in Ghana.

In fact, the rapidly developed prototype, designed, built and tested in less than five weeks by a team of six people who had never met before and some of whom had little to no engineering experience, was such a success that three of the farmers who gathered at a recent showcase and demonstration in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city, couldn’t wait to get their hands on it and asked if they could buy the prototype right on the spot.

That was the culmination of this year’s International Development Design Summit (IDDS), a gathering that, for each of the last five summers, has brought dozens of people from around the world together for a workshop to develop devices to improve the lives of people living in less-affluent parts of the world. Students, engineers, teachers and just plain folks from 16 nations traveled to Ghana to take part in five weeks of nonstop intensive instruction, interaction, brainstorming and design work. The idea was first to figure out what kinds of problems local people had, and then to design and build prototype devices to fix them.

IDDS — organized by MIT senior lecturer Amy Smith and a team from MIT, Olin College, Cooper-Perkins (a local design firm), Colorado State University and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology — has been so successful at developing useful innovations for people in developing countries around the world that its organizers have decided on a major expansion next year. Instead of a single summit involving 70 to 80 participants, as it was this year and in previous years (twice on the MIT campus, twice in Ghana and once in Colorado), next year they plan to have three separate simultaneous summits on different continents, tentatively planned as one each in Brazil, India and Zambia.

Working with local villagers

Each year, the participants who arrive from all walks of life and corners of the globe are divided into teams of about a half-dozen people, and each team focuses on trying to find solutions to a specific problem. This year, they started by fanning out to local villages where each team spent five days meeting with local residents to learn about the things they do in their daily lives, and explore possibilities for developing things that could simplify some of their tasks or provide additional income. The local input, and feedback during the development of prototypes, is a crucial part of the process.

The concept originated with Smith, a former MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, who also founded MIT’s D-Lab program, which focus on designing, developing and disseminating devices to improve the lives of people in the world’s poorer nations and communities. In addition to working on the development of specific prototypes, the idea of the summit is to foster people’s creative talents and their ability to work together in teams, and to give them a sense of empowerment about being able to find innovative solutions to their own longstanding problems.

This year’s summit focused on nine different projects, ranging from a solar charger for cellphones to the improved moringa seed sheller. It was these two projects’ prototypes that locals wanted to buy on the spot.

Another team focused on finding a way to provide electricity from agricultural waste, by pyrolizing the waste in a metal container and directing the resulting gas (methane, hydrogen and carbon monoxide) into a lawnmower engine, which in turn powered an alternator to charge up batteries. The system could be used to provide lighting and to charge cellphones in villages that have no source of outside power.

Similar systems were used in Europe during World War II to provide fuel for cars, which was known as “producer gas,” explains Gwyndaf Jones, a D-Lab instructor at MIT who has been one of the organizers at each of the five years of IDDS and who worked with the biogas team this year. The system can be used with virtually any organic materials, which are placed in a sealed container without air and then heated, so they turn to gas without actually burning. A tube from the container — in this case, a large coffee can — passes through a filter and then straight into the engine’s carburetor. “It’s as simple as could be,” Jones says.

The prototype was so efficient that the team could hardly believe the small amount of grass clippings they loaded in was really making the engine keep running so long. The prototype was hooked up to a simple connector for cellphone chargers. Currently, the village has people who provide a service by taking people’s cellphones on the 45-minute bus trip to a nearby town that has grid-supplied power, where they charge the phones and bring them back for about a 20-cent fee. The new system would allow people to charge their phones locally, more frequently, and for less cost.

“We got the basic thing working” during the four-week workshop, “but we didn’t have time to optimize it,” Jones says. The electric grid is never going to reach these remote villages in the lifetime of anyone who is alive today, he says, “so the strategy is to have their own local power, in an affordable way.”

Fighting malaria, treating bamboo

Other projects this year included developing a way to combat malaria by designing a lamp to provide light while vaporizing oil from the neem tree, another local crop that has natural insect-fighting properties; a better system for farmers to obtain and share information on best practices for farming local crops; ways of treating bamboo, which grows abundantly in the area, to prevent rot so that it could become a more useful building material; and helping farmers develop a way of sorting their peanut crops by determining which shells contained mature peanuts and which did not.

This year’s IDDS had more local participation than ever before, says Jessica Huang, who first participated in the summit in 2008 and has been one of the organizers each year since then. There were at least 27 Ghanian participants and organizers, and at least one was on each of the teams. Members from at least two of the teams are continuing to work on their projects after the summit’s end, she says.

D-Lab instructor Dennis Nagle, who has participated in each of the IDDS programs, says it is always amazing how well it works out to have dozens of people from different places, cultures, languages and backgrounds, most of whom have never met before, able to work together effectively as teams and accomplish new things.

This year, he says, “I was really surprised by how well done the projects were.” Not only were there offers to buy some of the prototypes on the spot during their final presentations, but in the case of the moringa sheller, which had a very efficient, very simple design, one local moringa farmer said he could easily sell 200 of them.

In fact, some local people were interested in buying prototypes so they could make copies of the devices for themselves, Nagle says. “We’d actually make them a copy for free, but if somebody local wants to buy it so they can copy it, I like that kind of dissemination. If the technology is so good that people want to ‘steal’ it, that’s great, that’s exactly what you want.”

Even during the design process, the local villagers were heavily involved. Laura Stupin, one of the IDDS mentors, says that after her team demonstrated an early prototype of their cellphone charger in a village, “one of the villagers took one look at it and then came back two hours later with his own hand-crafted version,” which actually worked much better than theirs, even though he had to make it without some of the electric tools they had used. They ended up using his ideas for their final version.

It was “fantastic to have someone replicate our technology but do a better job than we had,” Stupin says. “Our final charger was truly a product of co-creation.”

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