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Teaching skills to solve local community challenges

As part of our series looking at innovators tackling development challenges in unexpected ways, we spoke to Deborah Tien, executive director of Twende – a social innovation centre that is helping people to design and make their own technologies that solve community challenges in Tanzania. 


  1. Twende emerged from a collaboration between a Tanzanian inventor and a British engineer. Can you tell us more about your story, and what’s unique about your approach?


Jim, the British engineer, first came to Tanzania on an engineering project 26 years ago – and since then became completely hooked on developing appropriate agricultural technologies.


Eventually he linked up with Jodie, an MIT D-Lab student, Daniel, a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, and of course Bernard – the prolific Tanzanian inventor. Jim, Daniel and Jodie had struggled in the past to fully realise the potential of their technology development work, and were awestruck by Bernard’s inventions. Together they decided, rather than bringing foreign engineers and business people to do international development, that they would be better off finding ways to support the good work already happening and fostering more local, grassroots innovators like Bernard.


Now, we run our hands-on, project-based design and creativity workshops with anybody – from secondary school students who have never picked up a hand tool, to illiterate small-holder farmers, to international professional designers. We value diversity and inclusivity in a way that might slow us down in the short-term but seems central for long-term change and progress. That seems pretty unique among technology developers.


  1. You run lots of workshops for people trying to solve everyday problems using technology. What are some of the most exciting new ideas that have come out of this process and how do you support local innovators to develop them further?


During one of our workshops in a nearby village, one of the challenges that the villagers identified was that dogs were eating all the avocados that fell onto the ground. I was worried they might try to kill the dogs, and I was pleasantly surprised their solution was both simpler and more sensible: nets to catch the avocados! These nets would also make it easier to harvest the avocados and prevent bruising of the avocados. I love this example because it is a clever, comprehensive, yet straightforward solution to a real problem, as opposed to what can also happen: an overly-designed technology only partially solving an issue.

Rural community members testing an avocado net


Another example that excites me is a wheelbarrow repurposed to spread manure, designed by a Maasai small-holder farmer named Frank. Again, it sounds really simple, but the thing is, here in Tanzania, manure is not always used, and even when it is, it is spread ineffectively with a shovel or with an expensive tractor. Of course, most small-holder farmers cannot afford a tractor, but would benefit from better fertilization This wheelbarrow is essentially the only intermediate technology for spreading manure that is available in Tanzania.


For Frank, as one of our exceptionally committed innovators, we have ‘incubated’ his technology by allowing him to use our space and tools to iterate his project. We provide technical advising, and we have matched him with interns who have provided grant-writing, presentation, marketing, business development and sales assistance.


What also astounds me is how much Frank has given back, by helping us with our annual Cleaning Day, advising others in their innovations, assisting us with finding participants for our workshops, and sharing his story to inspire more innovators.


  1. At Twende you’re committed to experimenting with different approaches to encouraging more innovation in Tanzanian communities. What challenges have you experienced along the way, and what are some of the interesting things you have learned from these experiments?


You’re right. Some of those experiments include:

  • offering youth the chance to visit Bernard’s house full of innovations
  • running Creative Capacity Building workshops that guide people to identify their own problems and design and make their own solutions
  • and giving students, who have never seen a resistor or capacitor in real life, the opportunity to make an LED light up, or participate in other “Build-it” workshops.

‘Build It’ workshop participants who just finished their chapati boards and rolling pins


The original goal of these activities was to introduce Twende to different audiences, so they could return to Twende for technical advising and tool using.


However, we realised people need a little bit more of a push, so we started running longer programmes and regularly visiting and calling folks working on projects to offer technical advising and support. When people’s technologies are more finished, we introduce them to organisations and people who can offer business development, communications and financing support.


That said, we can’t, shouldn’t, and don’t do it all ourselves. Each year, we grow our network of (currently 35+) local partner organisations and schools to supplement the national curriculum and run our workshops, unique for both their content and their methodology.


We also open ourselves to more alternative partnerships such as working with a local solar company to set up a workshop powered by solar in a village. We have even started partnering abroad with other similar spaces, to create an international consortium to share curriculum, lessons learned and technical support. We welcome many different players to build an inclusive innovation ecosystem.


  1. Your organisation strikes an interesting balance between being locally rooted and internationally oriented. What do you think are some of the advantages of operating in this way?


Though local roots are crucial, thoughtfully bringing together international people and events can catalyse new connections with pleasantly surprising results.


For example, Edgar, a Tanzanian secondary school student, came to Twende and was inspired by a volunteer from the Central African Republic who had worked on melting plastic bags and sand into paving blocks. Edgar adapted the idea for the Tanzanian context. Awards for this work have inspired several other Tanzanian students to come to Twende to work on new projects, too.


In another instance, we’ve had MIT engineers come to Twende to use our tools and space. These engineers bring their innovations to Bernard, who did not go to university. In general, Bernard will significantly enhance their technologies by leveraging local materials in remarkably clever ways. Part of why our work is important is to shift typical perceptions, and we have seen more international teams come ready to co-create with and learn from Tanzanians, as opposed to treating people like test subjects.

Twende’s Bernard and Frank working with MIT engineers and Athumaini (local fundi) on ‘OKOA’ project, an ambulance add-on for motorcycles (Photo credit: Emily Young)


We also want more exchange amongst different communities in Tanzania, specifically – it’s a big country!


Bernard facilitates a lot of that. He is a humble man who prefers to invent in the quiet of his home to solve challenges he faces. He is not looking to become the next billionaire, but he does want to inspire. So he invites Tanzanian youth from different backgrounds to his house to see his wind-powered washing machine, solar cooking ovens and bicycle-powered water pump. We also showcase some of his technologies at Twende, and we are building a public, online database of local technologies.


  1. Are there any lessons that can be drawn from your experience for development organisations and others interested in supporting local innovators?


As many folks reading this blog know, good design consists of two primary parts: defining the problem and coming up with a solution. Most development organisations hire people with good problem-solving skills, and then educate them on community problems on a case-by-case basis. In our case, we’ve found it more productive to flip that: finding people with intimate knowledge of community challenges – usually because they experience them themselves – and offering those people trainings and resources to solve those problems.


Both are valid approaches. Ours is more rooted in local knowledge and context. While it results in fewer scalable products, it works better to properly serve specific, localised needs and to build community buy-in. Developing technologies that really work includes developing confidence to use, maintain, adjust, repair, adapt and evolve those technologies. That’s really our goal: not just more technology, but more technology-adept people. One can’t succeed without the other.


  1. Tell us what’s next for Twende. What would you love to make happen in 2018?


In 2018, alongside training a targeted 600+ Tanzanian youth and community members in our standard workshops, we are running our first design competition for Tanzanian secondary school students, for longer engagement at a younger age.


We are organising our first ‘Maker Soko,’ modelled after Maker Faire, an event featuring makers showcasing their innovations, to connect makers and possible users. We are also planning a 10-12 week programme to teach design to a team of local community organisations, Tanzanian youth and international engineering/design students, in order to offer participants more exposure to international perspectives while working on a technology addressing a local problem. If you are interested in getting involved in any of this, please feel free to contact us!


We’re also hiring the next Executive Director right now. As the current ED, I can confidently say this role has taught me more than any of my formal education; it’s exposed me to more opportunities than I could have ever dreamed of; and, most importantly, it’s allowed me to meet and work with some of the most incredible, inspiring people in the world. I encourage anyone who is up for the challenge of working in a dynamic, grassroots organisation to apply.


With thanks to Liam Grace-Flood for editing support.


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Latest User Experience

  1. Francis Oyat Otoo

    Family Harvest Foundation

    The information in Twende is a big boost to our vocational school. We teach the youth 80% practical skills to gain a skill knowledge and 20% theory and this give them the chance to learn new ideas and faster approach to master the skill idea. If the equipment and tools are enough, the trainees learn much faster and become more innovative.


  2. Oyat Francis Otoo

    Family Harvest Foundation

    Interesting. I hope our welding and fabrication department have learnt something from it based on their comments. That’s why we closely follow GlobalGiving programmes and activities