MIT’s D-Lab

The Rwanda Experience

Smith’s most valuable invention: the D-Lab

Amy Smith is a senior lecturer of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and founder of the school’s highly acclaimed D-Lab program. As a young engineer she invented a motorized hammer mill that converts grain into flour, using a simple design that was easily manufactured by Senegalese blacksmiths. In due course her significant international work experience and innovative approaches to mechanical engineering brought Smith prominent status in the arena of development, landing her on Time’s 2010 list of The World’s Most Influential People.[1]

One of her more novel creations was MIT’s D-Lab, a program that designs and implements appropriate technologies and sustainable solutions for developing countries. Smith’s long-standing philosophy of creating simple machines to meet particular needs and build the machines locally, is evident in D-Lab’s current portfolio of work. The portfolio contains a mechanized large-volume potato cutter in Peru, a portable solar cooker designed for high-altitude nomads in Tibet, a cook stove for burning pine needles as alternative fuel in India, just to name a few.[2]

By combining a pool of talented, young engineers with a commitment to build long-lasting relationships with third-world communities, D-Lab has achieved global recognition as a program that brings sustainable results.

The Rwanda Experience

This brings us to January of 2011, when a team of seven students explored the viability of introducing two of D-Lab’s concepts to Rwanda: a modified oil drum that converts agricultural waste into charcoal and a simple, hand-held device that removes dried kernels from an ear of corn. Both innovations are highly relevant in a country with 11 million people packed into an area the size of Maryland;[3] where 90 percent of that population consists of small-plot farmers, the wood-based fuel used by these farmers is harmful and expensive, and where 10 percent of total cultivated land is covered by maize crops.[4]

Team leader Nseabasi Umoh explained the team’s excitement in bringing MIT’s ideas to Rwanda, a country that “everyone is recognizing as a very interesting story, economically and in terms of development in sub-Saharan Africa.”

D-Lab partnered with a National University of Rwanda student organization called Rwanda Village Concept Project (RVCP) to facilitate the projects. RVCP echoes D-Lab’s commitment to low-cost technology, its mission being to improve the living standards in underprivileged, Rwandan communities through sustainable development projects.

The teams were divided by project. The RVCP students helped facilitate and translate for each, bridging the gap between the D-Lab team and the village communities they would teach.

The charcoal project originated from D-Lab’s “Fuel from the Fields” initiative in 2001 to research and address fuel scarcity, smoke-related health problems, and the economic needs of subsistence farmers.[5] The research resulted in a process to convert agricultural waste into charcoal — a more affordable and less-damaging alternative to the wood-based fuels commonly used in rural Rwanda. The process consists of burning waste, which can come from many Rwandan crops (mainly banana leaves and sorghum leaves) in modified $15 oil drums. The waste is carbonized in the oil drum then formed into charcoal briquettes using a $2 press and binder (made from starch-based plants common to East Africa).

D-Lab Drum Kiln


D-Lab showed local cooperatives how to perform this process and turn it into a sustainable, profitable business model. Farmers could now save the money they had spent on cooking fuel and profit from excess charcoal by selling it in their local market. This new and healthy method of making charcoal also showed a positive sign for a region suffering from illegal charcoal trade, and for a national park—home to the treasured mountain gorillas—suffering from deforestation.

The corn sheller project originated from D-Lab’s initiative to design a product that improves the efficiency of shelling corn, a process often done by hand in Rwanda and other developing, agriculture-based economies. “Shelling the annual maize harvest by hand typically takes weeks and may pull children out of school,” states a D-Lab research report.[6]

An engineer from Peru designed the initial corn sheller by forming ridges on a curved piece of sheet metal. An international non-profit partnered with D-Lab to simplify the design, after which Amy Smith developed a simple jig that could make these shellers quickly and easily (using only a hammer, pliers and metal cutter). Using the device, low-income farmers could not only more efficiently harvest their maize crops, but they could also learn to become technology creators and entrepreneurs.

Hand-held corn sheller

Project leader Jonathan Kola, a native Kenyan, saw its significance, calling the corn sheller a “bridge between very low technology and very high technology, from hands to machines, a bridge that feels the gap.”

The corn sheller represents more than an efficient, simple method to harvest maize — it embodies an ambition to transform Rwandan agriculture from subsistence farming into a productive pillar of the economy.

Water and sanitation were also key priorities of MIT’s research. Civil engineering student Marisa Simmons explored ways to provide clean water to rural villagers, and convince them that clear water didn’t always equate to clean water. With the help of RVCP students, Simmons first tested and analyzed the communal water supply. Meantime she engaged with the people, helping them analyze the results while emphasizing the importance and practicality of these simple tests.

By testing the water and showing the people first-hand results, she was able to “make them realize that there was contamination, even though the water was clear, and convince them that they needed to take some precautions to treat their water.” She then explored feasible methods in doing this, purifying the contaminated water via chlorination, sand filtration, solar disinfection and a cheap solution called Sur’Eau.

Moving forward

Key for the D-Lab’s ideas to build any momentum is the RVCP, which will perform project updates and give feedback to the MIT students in Boston. RVCP will return to the village where water testing was performed to implement a second phase of tests. Ultimately their goal is to ensure that the introduced technology and ideas do not become meaningless.

Much still needs to be explored, like large-scale production of the corn shellers, a cheaper alternative to the oil drums used to make the charcoal briquettes and the best methods to clean water. Projects that didn’t work this year could lead to increased efforts by D-Lab to find solutions, like designing a flashlight that could be cheaply made and mass-produced across the developing world. D-lab has a vast amount of resources, and more importantly a group of minds that are willing to work for solutions.

Amy Smith’s program has had profound effects on farmers and small businesses across the developing world. Her program’s dedication to each idea, each country it’s been involved in, was on clear display in Rwanda. Even clearer was how D-Lab has become a model as the most effective approach to development.


Turning obstacles into opportunities…

When Jonathan Kola tried to demonstrate high-resolution mapping by attaching cameras to balloons, and sending those balloons up to collect the necessary data, windy conditions and unavailable helium prevented any progress. Not allowing this to hold him back, he chose to use the cameras instead to educate local high school students on the signs of deforestation. He and the students brought the images back to the classroom, compiled charts, and discussed all implications.

Another project—the design of a low-cost and low-energy flashlight—couldn’t materialize due to the high cost of the design’s necessary components. This led Chicago native Danny Bulmash to adapt, using his math and physics background to show secondary teachers science experiments that could be taught with local materials. These simple and practical experiments taught an invaluable lesson: even without proper lab space or access to sophisticated materials, rural teachers can still provide hands-on learning experiences to their classes.

Bulmash pointed to the future of Rwanda, saying that this teaching method “gives students hands-on experience in science. It also gets them interested in science and engineering careers that are very relevant to a country trying to build itself up as a technology hub.”

Slideshow photos provided by D-Lab

Take an in-depth look at the Charcoal Project and the Corn Sheller Project

  1. [1]The 2010 TIME 100: Amy Smith.” Time. 29 Apr. 2010. Web. 11 Feb. 2011.
  2. [2] D-Lab: Development. D-Lab: Development through Dialogue, Design & Dissemination. MIT, 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.
  3. [3]United States. CIA. Central Intelligence Agency. 20 Jan. 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.
  4. [4]Rwanda. Rwanda Agricultural Research Institute. Government of Rwanda. Web. 13 Feb. 2011.
  5. [5]D-Lab Fuel from the Fields: Charcoal Background Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  6. [6]D-Lab Corn Sheller Background Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Accessed on [insert date]).