(Summer ’13) John Tebes, ’14

John was in Arusha, Tanzania, for the summer to scale-up the technological workshops of Bernard Kiwia, the co-founder and chief inventor of a community innovation center called Accelerating Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (AISE). While there, John generated Khan Academy- style educational videos which explained how to make these technologies and build AISE’s professional network of schools and NGOs. He  also produced a documentary about Mr. Kiwia which is posted on an online platform. This project aids AISE’s in broadening their impact both locally and globally as well as established it as an innovation center at the forefront of improving the lives of the poor through local innovation.

Fourth Blog – August 3rd: The Economic Appeal of Motorcycle-Powered Thresher for Smallholder Farmers in Tanzania

Building on pedal-powered prototypes designed by Global Cycle Solutions and D-Lab, Bernard is developing a motorcycle-powered multi-crop thresher. This device is designed to enable smallholder farmers to thresh their own rice, sorghum or other staple crops without having to hire extra labor. Besides increasing throughput of a basic man-powered thresher by harnessing the power of a motorcycle engine, his design adds a winnowing component that further expedites crop processing.

During field tests, GCS discovered that many smallholder farmers pay casual laborers 3,000 Tsh/bag to thresh their rice, which at 12 bags per acre, amounts to 36,000 Tsh/acre. This means that for a small 5 acre plot, farmers pay casual laborers 180,000 Tsh or 112.5 USD per harvest on average. Considering that farmers make less than $300 for a 5-acre harvest of rice, this is a rather significant expenditure (more than one-third!). Reducing this expenditure could significantly raise profits for smallholder farmers, who are among the poorest individuals in Tanzania.

Bernard explains his design for a motorcycle-powered multi-crop thresher to John.

Bernard explains his design for a motorcycle-powered multi-crop thresher to John.

While large farms tend to produce crops for exporting purposes, mid to small-sized farms sell to local food markets. Mid-sized farms often sell enough crops that they are able to influence market prices and take advantage of economies of scale; mid-sized rice farmers can often afford more efficient technologies, such as an engine-powered harvester that harvests, threshes and winnows all at once. Smallholder farmers, on the other hand, are very much price-takers. With just 5 to 10 acres, small farms do not have enough market power to influence the value of their crops through price-setting. [Although cooperatives do exits, most villagers do not belong to one.] In fact, small farms may have to take very low prices due to competition with mid-sized farms whose per unit costs are lower. If small farms do not charge the market price, an interested buyer can walk down the street to another farm.

It is in this context that AISE aims to make simple technologies that reduce the cost of production for smallholder farmers. For them to compete with their mid-sized counterparts they need more efficient technologies that can function without electricity and are affordable given their (constrained) budgets.

But there is another reason why this thresher has so much potential. Threshing is tough work. Actually, tough is an under-statement. Threshing rice is back-breaking. When GCS tested their prototype in the field last week, they found that in many areas casual labor is too expensive. As a result, many smallholder farmers are forced to thresh the rice themselves. This involves 2-3 days of tirelessly smacking big bundles of rice stock against the ground until all the individual rice falls off. Such labor takes a toll on your body, especially for farmers in their 40s and 50s. When asked about the rice thresher directly, many farmers that GCS interviewed laughed with joy. “Yes, we would be happy to buy it for (100 USD)”. Given our estimates of the cost of casual labor, their responses are rational. People in regions where casual labor is cheap, already value that work at more than 100 USD per 5-acre harvest.

The exact price of Bernard’s motorcycle thresher has yet to be determined. Probably, it will sell for close to 200 USD. Although this is a significant purchase (and double what GCS plans to charge), it may enable entrepreneurial motorcycle drivers (of whom there is a surplus around Arusha) to make a living threshing rice, sorghum, and other crops during harvest season. If they charge the going rate for casual labor, they will be able to pay for the machine after threshing just 9 acres or two small plots.

This is what innovation for the bottom of the pyramid looks like — adding value, where value is needed.

Third Blog – August 3rd: Project Update

With less than 2 weeks left, my project is well on its way. Earlier last week, we launched the AISE website and Facebook in an attempt to publicize the vision of AISE as an emerging innovation center that inspires community-based innovation from the bottom-up. We still plan to add a variety of sections and features to the website, including a Swahili-option, donation section, course listing page, and virtual tour of the workshop. If you get a chance, please check it out and leave us feedback in the “Contact Us” section or on this blog.

Through conversations with Jodie Wu at Global Cycle Solutions (GCS), Bernard and I have also been able to clarify the new Director of Development position for AISE. This weekend we will start actively recruiting applicants to apply for the position and post the job offering on various NGO job search websites. If you know someone who is fluent in English and Swahili and has experience working for NGOs, make sure to leave a comment! We will be posting the job description in the next day or two so be on the look out for that if you or a friend are interested.

I will tune in again next week with updates on how AISE’s bicycle-powered juice blender is fairing at the local agricultural show, Nane Nane, and with pictures of Edmond Rice’s first days of technology classes at AISE!

Second Blog- July 24: A Second “Nyumbani”

On our way to work, Bernard and I traverse an intricate labyrinth of dirt roads through neighboring villages from Bernard’s house to the AISE workshop. It is a beautiful walk. We pass fields of corn, onions, maize and a myriad of other crops. Along the way, Bernard greets almost every person we pass, and I manage an occasional “habari?” (how are you), “mambo?” (what’s up), “poa” (cool), or “shikamu… asante” (good day) if the person is an elder. As a “mzungu” (white foreigner), I am often a subject of conversation. Children run by saying, “Hi, how are you?”, while teenagers often stand off to the side and stare. But everyone I have met so far is very welcoming. I think it helps that Bernard is a sort-of local legend within the community.

This morning, Bernard and I met with the headmaster and his assistant at Bernard’s old primary school, which is a 10-minute walk from Bernard’s home. Next Monday, we will meet again to finalize plans for Bernard to teach innovation and design to a class of 15 primary students at AISE. They will come for their first class next Wednesday or Thursday during their religion class and will return once a week for class thereafter.

The headmaster and his assistant both went to technical universities and are very excited to provide their students with this opportunity. They understand the importance of teaching students practical skills that are highly valued in the job market, especially when only 45% of students in Tanzania move on to secondary school. They also are big proponents of social innovation – innovation that aims at improving the standard of life for rural and/or low-income Tanzanians that have limited access to electricity, internet, or other modern technologies.

Bernard has already decided that the class’s first project will be to build a hand-washing facility outside the school’s out-houses. Right now, there is no such facility available to students or faculty. “I will give them the idea, but they will have to come up with the design,” Bernard told me. “It will be their own invention. I am only there to facilitate – to be their teacher.” After we launch the AISE website later this week, I will be posting pictures and short videos of these workshops.

Bernard has been an amazing host. Last night, he took me to the school football field to meet the local footballers (soccer players). Standing side-by-side, we watched the secondary school football game along with hundreds of other students and teachers. Although the field is made entirely of dirt, has no football lines, and teams were distinguished by make-shift pinnies instead of jerseys, the football spirit could be heard echoing around the field, unfettered. In fact, the foot skills of most of these teenagers were far superior to those of most high schoolers you would find in America. Between greetings of former students and school teachers, Bernard introduced me to the captain of the village football team. This player is a local football legend and the recipient of the soccer ball I gave to Bernard last time I came. Later tonight, I will be joining this team to practice, hoping to pick up a trick or two.

Monday night Bernard taught me a new word in KiSwahili – “Nyumbani”. It means “home”. I think this word perfectly sums up my first few days in Arusha, Tanzania. Despite the different world I come from, living with Bernard and working at AISE has made me feel at home. It’s nice to be back.

First Blog- July 24: AISE, what it is… and what it can be.

24 hours by plane, 2 hours by car and I was there – the home of Bernard Kiwia. This is the place I will be living for the next month.

Bernard Kiwia is a Tanzanian inventor who was inspired by MIT’s D-Lab to start an innovation center in Arusha, Tanzania. Formerly an electrician and bike-mechanic by profession, Bernard has spent his last five years creating intermediate technologies for rural communities and teaching technology workshops to students and villagers. In 2010, he founded Accelerating Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (AISE) so that his work could be sustained through an organized platform. As a Tanzanian, Bernard envisions AISE as a place where local experience and technical expertise inspire community members to improve their own quality of life through affordable innovation.

I am here to help Bernard turn this vision into a reality.

Last January, I met Bernard on a trip to Tanzania with an introductory D-Lab class. I was inspired by his story and his vision for Tanzanian innovation from the ground-up. He believed that local entrepreneurs and inventors could be next major set of developers in rural Tanzania. This is a belief I have come to hold as well.

While in Tanzania, I will help develop the business side of AISE. Although this will include ordinary business tasks, such as writing an executive summary, consolidating the budget, and formulating a timeline, it will also involve in-depth networking and publicity. Specifically, the main tasks I will be working on with a team of other interns at Global Cycle Solutions, AISE’s parent company and Bernard’s former employer, are listed below.

  1. I am working closely with Bernard to create an interactive website for AISE that encourages community participation and provides a funding platform for interested supporters.
  2. I will help recruit a second AISE employee who will oversee the business side of AISE after I leave in August. This person will be funded through a grant D-Lab received from USAID to support a global network of inventors – the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN). The recruitment of this individual will be integral to broadening AISE’s impact.
  3.  I am working with IDIN and a team of GCS fellows and MIT students to create a new web platform that will enable inventors across the developing world to exchange ideas and to market their products to interested global buyers. We hope to market AISE technologies to both rural communities and schools, since they can not only improve rural life but also serve as powerful tools for teaching.
  4. I’ll broaden AISE’s local network of schools, NGOs, and funding organizations so as to grow AISE’s impact locally and establish a professional network that can sustain AISE into the future.
  5. I document AISE workshops, classes and daily operations throughout so as to assist in the creation of a documentary produced by Hendrix Productions, a film company based out of Massachusetts that is featuring AISE in its Young World Inventor series.

Admittedly, I am little worried about how all these projects fit together. Are these tasks so disparate that I will fail to encourage a singular vision for AISE by the end of August?

In a way, AISE is much like a start-up tech company in its early phases. When you are working for a new start-up, you often do not focus solely on one aspect of the organization, especially if you are part of a team of two or three. So is the case for AISE. I am working on many aspects of the organization simultaneously in order to get AISE, the business, off the ground. AISE is in a “start-up” phase.

What must unite my summer work is a clear vision of what AISE is and can be. I have had the advantage of observing AISE last January, and speaking closely with Bernard since then. Through these conversations, I’ve come to know what AISE currently is. It is an organization that succeeds at teaching innovation and making relevant, low-cost technologies for village communities with specific needs. What it CAN BE is an innovation center – a hub of Tanzanian innovation where unlikely entrepreneurs and inventors, inspired by Bernard’s workshops, come to develop their own innovations to improve their community’s quality of life.

This summer is about the “can be” part, and I’m excited to get started.