A Team of 6 students from the MIT D-lab and their lead Ms. Nai Kalema visited the ResilientAfrica Network (RAN) Innovation lab in Kampala, Uganda on Monday 9th January 2017. The visitors passed by the lab prior to their trip to Soroti, Eastern Uganda where they planned to spend a month carrying out field research. The open meeting was attended by students and innovators from the RAN network, as well as youth from the “Raising Gabdho” Refugee Community Center, who have been involved in the manufacturing and marketing of cook stoves and alternative cooking fuels like “honey comb briquettes”.

The session which attracted 33 participants offered innovators from the different institutions and organizations the chance to interact and share experiences from their innovation journeys. Each of the attendees was given an opportunity to talk about their projects, key learnings, challenges and aspirations. After a round robin of introductions, attendees then were divided into 3 small groups to share more in-depth about their innovations and explore any synergistic opportunities in each other’s work. The group discussions were guided by 3 questions;

What have you found most interesting in your journey of innovation?

What are some of the challenges you have encountered?

What are some of the opportunities you have found that have not yet been harnessed?

One of the challenges highlighted by most of the participants was the lack of financial resources, which often prevented innovators from advancing from one stage to another. Attendees also shared about the difficulties they faced while introducing their innovations to the communities. “I often find it difficult to incorporate all the feedback from the different potential end users to ensure my product meets their needs,” One innovator shared. All members alluded to this, however, they highlighted the fact that the benefits of initially and continually engaging the communities in these discussions and processes, outweighed the costs. All the participants also listed the opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds and disciplines among the things they found most interesting on their innovation journey.  Another participant highlighted that the ‘importance of having a cohesive team to help steer the innovation is often underrated.”

Overall, Innovators noted that some of the challenges are the same, regardless of whether you are based at MIT or Makerere University in Africa. Collaboration and cross knowledge sharing is one way in which innovators can continuously share insights on what works and what does not. At the end of this formal meeting, the innovators remained behind to informally continue with the chat and also exchange contacts with their MIT counterparts over a drink.

In the days following this meeting, the MIT students will be travelling to Soroti, where they will offer some technical assistance to Betty Ikalany’s (one of the female innovators from Eastern Uganda) production technology and cook stove factory.  Additionally, the MIT Team is slated to host a youth innovation workshop (design summit) working with about 50 children ages 12-17 in the region.  For this workshop, they will deliver practical science sessions and activities and design a hackathon that will culminate into a community showcase event. The RAN team nominated 2 student instructors who were former interns at the lab and from Makerere University’s College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology (CEDAT); Jim Katunguka and Kenneth Nuwagaba, to partake in the Design Summit. In the future, these students will also compliment the RAN team as instructors when they are implementing Community based Co-creation workshops in different communities.

The Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) has continued to provide a platform that promotes collaboration and allows students, researchers, innovators, and institutions to partner in the development of innovative solutions. As a result of the network, some joint initiatives have sprung up in the past between MIT D-lab and Makerere University innovators like the collaborative study in 2015 that described the “Sustained adoption of clean cooking products through a market-based intervention in Soroti, Uganda”. The study involved researchers from MIT, D-Lab who worked with 3 students from Makerere University; Joseph Opiding, Denis Oktel and David Tusubira in Soroti – Uganda. It is usually through such partnerships that each achieves more.