MIT D-Lab has named Bob Nanes, a veteran of international development, to the newly created position of executive director.
“Programs like D-Lab are doing the great work of introducing the current generation to the poverty challenge,” says Nanes. “I want to be part of this. It is time for me to bring others along on this journey of creating the world we all want to live in — a world that is better for everyone.”
Nanes joins the current D-Lab leadership team, which includes faculty director Dan Frey, associate director Kofi Taha, director of the D-Lab Scale-Ups program Saida Benhayoune, evaluation manager Kendra Letih, and founder Amy Smith.
“We are thrilled that Bob will be joining D-Lab,” says Smith. “He brings a wealth of on-the-ground experience as well as the management, leadership, and fundraising skills that will help move D-Lab to the next chapter of what has been an exciting story for us so far.”
The iDE years
For 25 years, Bob worked with iDE (formerly International Development Enterprises), an international non-profit dedicated to ending poverty in the developing world through helping farm families access the tools and knowledge they need to increase their income. Among other roles, Nanes served as country director in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Ghana, and as the director of training.
“My life’s work has been developing and marketing appropriate technologies for low-income people in developing countries,” says Nanes. “And I have been doing this because I realized early in my life that in a globalized world the huge gap between rich and poor is one of the biggest long-term problems we are facing and that access to technology and markets is part of the solution.”
His most recent position at iDE was as head of the Technology and Innovation Group, supporting iDE country programs in product innovation and development, technology transfer, international procurement, program innovation and development, and fostering a culture of innovation across the organization. During that time, Nanes established an open challenge to country programs providing funding for small innovative projects, which could have application across different programs and geographic areas. In addition, Nanes coordinated an international initiative to support and develop agriculture-related microfinance through partnerships with financial institutions in iDE country programs and developed a global initiative for the commercial dissemination of a million drip irrigation systems in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nanes is also well known for his contributions to the development of iDE’s core agricultural methodology, Poverty Reduction through Irrigation and Smallholder Markets (PRISM), a value chain approach oriented specifically to the needs of smallholder farmers and high value crop production. And, Nanes was instrumental in developing the private sector supply chain that resulted in the sales of 75,000 treadle pumps in Bangladesh while he was iDE country director, and ultimately as many as 1.3 million.
Paul Polak, founder of iDE and widely regarded as the father of market-based international development, has high praise for Nanes in his new role at D-Lab: “I can’t think of a better person for the job. … Bob is one of the most talented people I know in translating creative ideas into practice in the field. I look forward to a brilliant future, and to our continued collaboration.”
Areas of strategic importance
When asked what he sees as areas of strategic importance for D-Lab, Nanes mentions opportunities in mobile applications, the critical need for climate change adaptation in the developing world, financing and insurance, post-harvest processing, connecting to markets, and social entrepreneurship.
Acknowledging the ubiquity of text-enabled mobile phones, Nanes described the important work that could be done using tablet applications to deliver audio-video content to small groups of rural-based clients, and help gather data from rural-based clients that can be easily aggregated through the cloud. Regarding climate change adaptation, he focused on the need for animal housing, water control technologies, diagnosis equipment, and modifications of plant growing environments. He also touched on the critical role technology can play in the financing to make even simple technologies available to those in need of them and for managing insurance claims.
Finally, Nanes is excited by the kinds of social enterprises that have spun out of D-Lab through the years, and by the potential they pose for poverty alleviation: “Social enterprises like MoringaConnect [founded by D-Lab Scale-Ups fellow Kwami Williams ’12 and Emily Cunningham] can be tremendously valuable to local producers, in this case, small agricultural producers. There are a lot more opportunities to work with entrepreneurs and local collectives to add value to their agricultural produce and to market it in urban or export markets. Things like distillation units for medicinal and aromatic plants, spice processing, oil production, and seed preservation produce very high value products.”
As director of the D-Lab Scale-Ups program, Saida Benhayoune is excited by Nanes’ interest in social enterprise and experience with market-based solutions to poverty. "Bob’s experience with iDE’s market-based approach to development will be a tremendous resource for D-Lab students, researchers, social enterprise fellows, as well as for the members of the Practical Impact Alliance.”
D-Lab leadership team transitions
The position of executive director was created last spring in anticipation of longtime co-director Victor Grau Serrat’s departure last month.
“Victor served D-Lab extraordinarily well for many years, and we are sorry to lose the talent and energy he brought to the program,” says J. Kim Vandiver, MIT dean for undergraduate research. “If there was a silver lining to the news of Victor’s decision to step down as co-director, it was the opportunity to re-envision the D-Lab leadership structure and create a new position to complement what is already a deep bench of wide-ranging experience and expertise.”
For D-Lab founder Amy Smith, creating the newly defined role of executive director allows her to step back from the some of the day-to-day oversight of running D-Lab.
Says Smith: “I am looking forward to having more time to focus on the work that I have started over the last few years applying the Creative Capacity Building and co-creation methodologies that we have developed at D-Lab to humanitarian and crisis situations. I believe that the work that we can do to promote and support refugee-led innovation and co-creation between displaced people and the organizations that seek to help them has the potential to have a tremendous impact.”
Dan Frey, recently appointed D-Lab faculty director, looks forward Nanes helping him think through projects from the early stage of connecting with partners to the late stages of implementation and scaling. “Bob brings to D-Lab decades of experience effecting practical, positive impact in the developing world,” says Frey.
When asked why he is interested in joining D-Lab at this stage in his career, Nanes responds, “I have spent most of career living and working overseas creating opportunities for the rural poor in developing countries to improve their livelihoods and health through the development and marketing of appropriate technologies and through linking producers to expanding markets for their products,” says Nanes. “At D-Lab, I will have the opportunity to share and apply my experience working in deep collaboration with local communities to identify and create market-based technology solutions to their needs. I look forward to being part of a team that is opening the door to this exciting and important work called international development to the MIT community and to D-Lab’s community partners around the world.”
D-Lab’s universe of community partners around the world includes the constellation of innovators, social enterprises, and local organizations that is the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN), spearheaded by D-Lab and funded by the United States Agency for International Development. Nanes’ first contact with D-Lab was in 2009 at an IDIN design summit in Kumasi, Ghana. “These summits are an amazing way to link university students with people from the developing world who are grappling with ways to improve the lives of their communities. People who attend these summits, whether from developing or developed countries, never look at the world in quite the same way.”
Through the years, in his roles at iDE, Nanes worked with student interns and volunteers, including students from D-Lab. "I had the opportunity to work with Bob in Ghana while co-leading a D-Lab: Development team over the Independent Activities Period,” recalls D-Lab associate director Kofi Taha, “and based on that, I am really excited to have somebody on board with such a passion for working with students on meaningful projects. I am confident that he will strengthen our capacity to rigorously prepare students to tackle some of the world's hardest problems."
Nanes was once an engineering student himself; he has a degree in agricultural engineering from Cornell. However, he says, “I do not think of myself as an engineer, but rather as a person who makes things work. Whether that is a pump, or a farming system or an organization, I apply myself to understanding the opportunities and problems, and developing a system to make it work better.“