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Studying the effects of coconuts being made into biofuel

Divya Agarwal travels to Fiji as part of an independent study project.
Divya Agarwal, center, in Fiji.
Divya Agarwal, center, in Fiji.
Photo courtesy of Divya Agarwal

An independent study project using coconuts as a biofuel had Divya Agarwal, MBA ’13, working in Fiji and Vanuatu for five weeks over winter break.

Agarwal, originally from Fargo, N.D., is a dual-degree student at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Harvard Kennedy School. She first heard about using coconuts as fuel when she was on personal travel in Mozambique. She proposed an exploratory project to MIT Media Lab Lecturer Joost Bonsen MOT ’06 who agreed to be her adviser. Agarwal later received funding from both the Public Service Center and The Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT.

The primary objective of Agarwal’s trip was to understand how “cocofuel” was being used to provide energy in the islands. “While I was in Fiji, I met with farmers, Fiji’s Department of Energy, and coco-entrepreneurs to understand the full coconut ecosystem. Connecting the dots of the different coconut oil initiatives was definitely my biggest challenge,” she notes.

“The process to make cocofuel is quite straightforward,” she says. “Farmers take the inside of the coconut and harvest it and dry it. They then sell the dried meat called copra to distilleries to make a biofuel that can only be used in older generators and engines. The process smells wonderful.”

Agarwal says that in order to make cocofuel viable for motor vehicles, it would have to undergo a more sophisticated chemical treatment process than is possible or affordable on the islands. So she focused on how the Fiji Department of Energy is using cocofuel to run generators in order to provide rural electrification. She also investigated ways to share this information with other communities around the world that don’t have access to diesel fuel or electricity.

The Fiji Department of Energy is investing heavily in this rural electrification project, so Agarwal traveled with them to visit sites where they had set up copra mills. She also worked with the department to do feasibility analysis on the mills to see if they were economically viable, and then sent her final paper to the department for use on future projects. She noted that the entire process is quite labor intensive, so it may only make economic sense for communities who are already harvesting coconuts for fuel.

“One of the best lessons I learned while in Fiji was to connect with organizations like the Peace Corps in order to learn more about the communities,” Agarwal says. “I was treated more like a local and was able to experience many more layers of the different communities because of this. I was able to see first-hand how individual economies within these villages worked. I could then see how it could be applied to other communities.”

Now back on campus, Agarwal is happy to be back among her classmates whom she calls eclectic, sharp and wonderfully warm and welcoming. She is taking advantage of the many activities offered at MIT and MIT Sloan and is a member of the Education Club.

“My dream is to build my own company on pedagogy and how effective knowledge sharing can build better organizations. This would include improving the human learning and teaching process in an effort to create better learning environments in organizations,” she says. Adding, “I encourage everyone at MIT Sloan to explore what they really want to do. We have two years in an incredibly dynamic and creative environment, and MIT is the best place for students to thrive by exploring new ideas and possibilities.”

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