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International development through dialogue, design, and dissemination

Amy Smith and students at MIT’s D-Lab create products for, and with, communities in the developing world.
Photo by MIT D-Lab

Twelve years ago, Amy Smith taught a class on adapting medical technologies for use in small-scale clinics. When a group of Haitian students became interested in developing technologies for Haiti, they asked, how could you design a product for Haiti if you’ve never been there?

Smith, now a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering and co-director of MIT's D-Lab, which she founded, says the question resonated with her own Peace Corps experience. Together, she and her students created a two-semester course in which they learned about Haiti, the language, international development, and different sectors of development. That January, they traveled to Haiti, where, alongside Peace Corps volunteers, they used skills learned from the fall semester to address the needs of the community.

In the spring, back at MIT, they worked on developing technologies to meet some of those needs. “It’s always been a very important part of our ethos to really understand the people who we’re working with and the context in which we are working,” Smith says. “Our goal is to create technologies that can improve the lives of people who live in poverty, develop them into either successful businesses or successful projects, and then build and disseminate those things at scale.”

Today, D-Lab attracts hundreds of students to a growing number of courses and programs. Scale-Ups assists entrepreneurs, corporations, and NGOs in bringing poverty-alleviating technologies to market. The Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation assesses technology solutions to challenges in the developing world. Creative Capacity Building encourages those living in poverty to become active creators of technology, and the International Development Innovation Network, a consortium of universities around the world, is establishing a global network of local innovators using technology to address issues facing people living in poverty.

“The impact of our programs is twofold,” Smith says. “In the field, we are trying to improve the lives of people who are living in poverty, and that can mean improving the quality of the water they drink, helping them process their agricultural products so they’re earning more income from the crops they grow. It can mean helping them develop a product into a business so they can have an income-generation opportunity.”

For students, the experience is transformational. “A lot of our projects expose students to the ways they can make a difference,” Smith says, “and they provide opportunities for students to design solutions to problems that have been identified in the field.”

From projects to products

In some cases, those who are passionate about a product they create will go through a piloting process in other courses offered through D-Lab. Recent Scale-Ups Fellow Kwami Williams ’12 wondered how he could turn his MoringaConnect seed sheller and oil press into an income-generating opportunity for farmers in Ghana.

“The moringa is commonly grown in West Africa, and people eat the leaves, but they don’t do much with the seeds, and yet within those seeds is a high-value oil,” Smith says. “Now, [Kwami] has a business where he’s working on models for marketing the oil. He’s looking at how to collect it from a large group of farmers, how to process it, how to develop the supply chains, both in receiving the oil and in moving it out to consumers and customers — and not just within Ghana, but for the world export market as well.”

Graduate student Amos Winter, who went to Tanzania to work on a wheelchair assessment project, noticed that wheelchairs are not well designed for people who live in rugged terrain. When he returned to MIT, he collaborated with teammates to design and build the Leveraged Freedom Chair. Instead of pushing on the rims of the wheel, riders can "shift gears" by sliding their hands up and down the levers for greater speed, or greater power depending on the terrain.

Winter then decided to teach a class on wheelchair design, because, as Smith points out, “it’s a great way to teach people about mechanical engineering.” One of his former students, Tish Scolnik '10 got very engaged with the project, and now she and another MIT alum have founded a company, Global Research Technology & Innovation, to produce and distribute the wheelchair all over the world.

Working in the world

In the developing world, fragmented markets can hinder the manufacturing and distribution of products. Smith says it’s hard to transport raw materials and to provide post-market services. “When you’re working with people who have limited incomes, you want a high-quality product at a price that’s affordable, or you want a financing scheme that makes it affordable for people to have access to products.”

Getting products to the people who need them requires working with local manufacturers and local artisans to produce technologies; tapping into local systems and distribution channels to bring products to market and to the people who could use them; and, finally, understanding the culture in order to advertise and promote products effectively.

A few years after the initial trip to Haiti, Smith and her students refined a new process for producing charcoal from agricultural waste. The new charcoal had a lot of advantages: “It has health benefits, because it reduces the amount of smoke in the kitchen where people are cooking. It has environmental benefits, because you don’t have to cut down trees in order to cook. And, finally, it has economic benefits, because you can produce a product using a waste material.”

It was also something the people of Haiti could produce themselves with an investment of only about $25. “In Haiti, charcoal is a high-value product,” Smith says. “Within a week, you can produce enough charcoal to pay back what you spent on the equipment you need to do it.”

“There is a huge market for quality products for people with limited income,” Smith says. “I think companies are looking for students who understand what the conditions are like in the developing world, so they can understand how to develop products for that market. And, quite honestly, I think we need to be educating our students to be able to design technologies that fit into that market.”

Smith also believes that long-term sustainable development in a community can’t rely solely on external sources for technology innovation. “You can manufacture products at a central location and develop supply chains that would get those products out to market,” she says, “or you can train people on a grassroots level to create the technology to solve problems themselves.”

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