What happens when you bring together a fish farmer from Zambia, an entrepreneur from India, a design engineer from Germany, an MBA student from Colorado, and a group of 42 other similarly diverse individuals, and send them to work together with rural Zambian communities to create technologies that will improve the lives of those living in poverty? The answer, as I witnessed at the International Development Design Summit earlier this month, is innovation.
The International Development Design Summit (IDDS) is an intense, month-long workshop that brings together people from all walks of life and a variety of disciplines to create solutions to development challenges faced by impoverished communities around the world. The IDDS summit, now in its seventh year, is organized by a consortium of U.S.-based and international universities led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Reflecting USAID’s deep commitment to greater collaboration with the global science, technology, university, business, and entrepreneur communities to solve development challenges, USAID/Zambia and USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) provided direct support to the summit for the first time this year.
Samenjo (Karl) Tondo from Cameroon and Oscar Manyara from Tanzania show off the improved design of an aluminum furnace that is safer and more efficient that the makeshift furnaces used by foundry workers. Photo credit: Amit Mistry, USAID
At this year’s Summit, 46 individuals, the majority of them from developing countries, came together in Lusaka, Zambia with one thing in common: a desire to improve lives through technology and innovation. After orientation in Lusaka, the group traveled to rural areas of the country to understand the development challenges faced by these communities. After arriving back in Lusaka, the innovators designed and built prototypes to address those challenges, and later returned to the field to get feedback from the local communities they collaborated with. Their prototypes were presented in a closing ceremony on July 29 to a full house of Zambian Government officials, local organizations, USAID and Peace Corps staff, and many other aspiring entrepreneurs.
The IDDS aluminum team went to Chazanga village on the outskirts of Lusaka and learned that foundry workers there face several challenges producing aluminum pots in makeshift furnaces made out of oil drums – challenges which affect their health and livelihoods. Using locally available materials, the team improved the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the furnace design by enabling pre-heating of aluminum, which reduces the amount of fuel required. They also made the entire structure mobile so that multiple users can work with the same furnace and a worker can move the furnace to take advantage of wind flow and improve efficiency. Most importantly, the new design includes a chimney-style vent, which keeps harmful fumes from being inhaled. Without this innovation, workers end up inhaling large volumes of the fumes and then drink several quarts of milk afterwards in an attempt to remove the toxins from their systems. The new design is safer, more efficient, more functional, and produces higher quality aluminum pots than the traditional oil drum furnace, providing opportunities for workers to earn more income and improve their quality of life.
Another IDDS team worked with communities in Kamphelo village in the Eastern Province and learned that women were putting their health at risk due to cultural taboos surrounding menstrual hygiene. Women in Kamphelo, as well as in many other areas in the world, are not able to speak freely with each other or to the men in their communities about menstruation and would often reuse old and unclean cloths as pads. The taboos are so strong that women are not able to clean and hang the cloths out to dry, increasing the risk of infection. The team designed an inexpensive, disposable pad that women could produce and sell themselves. The two men on the IDDS team became vocal advocates for hygienic menstrual practices, with one becoming more comfortable talking with his wife and daughter in Zambia about the issue and the other proudly discussing the issue with women’s groups in the village.
Loveness Mwanawasa from Zambia and Chole Underdwon from the United Kingdom practice designing menstrual pad prototypes in Kamphelo village. Photo credit: Amy Smith/MIT
These were just two of the eight design teams participating in IDDS 2013. In every case, impoverished Zambian communities benefited from the technology itself as well as the sense of empowerment they gained by engaging with the IDDS participants. The participants also came away from the experience with a new perspective on international development and a powerful new capacity to find solutions to the problems affecting people living in poverty.
With this additional support from HESN, the IDDS consortium is creating the International Development Innovation Network to grow its network of innovators and establish permanent innovation centers after the summits so that local innovators can continue to have access to tools, resources, and mentorship to turn their ideas into prototypes and turn their prototypes into sustainable enterprises.
“At USAID, we are taking an approach to development based on the fundamental belief that harnessing the power of science and technology – coupled with an open approach to solving problems that engages traditional and nontraditional development communities – are the keys to addressing the world’s greatest development challenges,” said Alex Dehgan, Science Adviser to USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, “and we are excited to have supported a summit that reflects this approach. These scientists, engineers, students, innovators, and entrepreneurs who came to devote their skills and their time to creating better and more sustainable solutions to key global challenges are in the vanguard of a new ‘solver movement’ that will help drive global economic growth and prosperity and improve the lives of millions.”
To learn more about USAID programs that support science, technology, and innovation, please visit: