Twende’s curb appeal

Twende is a social innovation center in Arusha, Tanzania. Their mission is to empower people to become creative problem solvers who create technology solutions for community challenges— and they do! In partnership with MIT’s IDIN (International Development Innovation Network), they’ve built a community makerspace; they run workshops with hundreds of participants in “Creative Capacity Building,” innovation methodologies, and specific technologies; and they support ongoing development of several community technologies, from mining rock drills and multi-crop threshers to plastic recycling. I sat down with Debbie Tien, the organization’s executive director, to learn more about the challenges and opportunities associated with their work.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity:

Can you tell me more about Twende’s affiliation with MIT and IDIN? We’re used to hearing about MIT initiated Fab Labs— why haven’t we heard of their IDIN Innovation Centers? What’s the difference?

When I think about fab labs I think about the machines and tools. I admit I don’t know their work so deeply, but  their work seems to revolve a lot around those particular machines. And that makes sense, because those machines are really useful.

Yeah, but I think the advertised cost is somewhere around $50,000 just for those tools.

They’re expensive machines! But in a way, it’s easier for someone to find a sponsor for a complete set of rapid prototyping machines, as opposed to selling someone on a place like Twende, where we buy tools that make sense for this context. We ask: Are these tools usable by rural villagers, who may have never seen, let alone used, a computer before? No? Then maybe those machines aren’t right for us right now, because they can make our work seem more intimidating, less accessible, more foreign.

Chris with Twende’s lathe (one of several photos hanging around the workshop)

A community makerspace is specifically meant to be a place that fits the local context, and that seems pretty different from Fab Labs’ recipe of one specific set of tools for every place. We, and the people we work with, really want our efforts to grow local innovations to be from the ground up, and to be responsive to local circumstances. But a set of unique tools, plus locally-adapted programs and processes, isn’t as straightforward to scale. For instance, Twende’s physical layout is optimized for our youth education programs in our peri-urban center whereas other IDIN-supported innovation centers are more experimentation and production spaces for rural communities. So what does scaling look like? Plus, many IDIN-supported innovation centers share a focus on hand tools, and that just isn’t as sexy to replicate.

My addition would be, Fab Labs also promote a lot of content-agnostic, making for making’s sake, or making for fun. Not saying I haven’t seen people have fun here, but making at Twende generally seems more purposeful.

For sure. We don’t make technologies just for fun. All this stuff is meant to improve life…. And yes, drawing machines do ‘improve life’ by being fun and making you laugh, but our primary purpose when we talk about life-improving technologies is stuff that generates, protects, or saves money, health, environment, time, labor, or some sort of combination of all of those. We think people can learn to make, while increasing their confidence as problem solvers, by making technologies that immediately contribute to improving the community,

Student and saw, during a workshop

One other potential difference between IDIN and Fab Foundation is that Fab Labs are really broad, and pop up in all kinds of contexts, but IDIN works specifically with communities in poverty. IDIN is also part of D-Lab, which is an international development organization. Do you see Twende as an international development project? And what does that look like when comparing your hyper local work with that external initiative?

Twende was founded by Bernard, a prolific Tanzanian inventor, and three foreigners, who had been living in East Africa for a  number of years. I think once they met Bernard, they thought, if we can have more Bernards in Tanzania, what a magical world this could be. But maybe I’m projecting, because that’s why I came to Twende. Anyway, the founders decided to make an organization to facilitate that— supporting local creativity and talent.

Bernard teaching a class

But when you bring in international people, locals might be intimidated and think this is not their space, or they might assume we have a lot of money. This is something we have to deal with, regardless of whether or not we consider ourselves an ‘international development project’ or not.

So in that, and some other ways, my international presence on the team can be an extra hurdle for all of us. But as all of us international organizations start to notice that, there seems to be a new trend, where even bigger, more traditional organizations are looking more at the local grassroots level, to support people on the ground making great impact  already So instead of hiring a crew of Americans or other foreigners to work in Tanzania, organizations are looking for Tanzanians already making positive change and figuring out how to support that.

And if international development is indeed going that way, then yes I would say we can categorize ourselves as an ‘international development’ organization. We bring in outside resources – things that can be difficult to find in smaller communities anywhere around the world – to support work that is being done locally.

“Drip irrigation Kit Pipes Maker”

So, building on that, you yourself are US American. Can you talk a little more about how you came to Twende and what it means now to be an American heading this hyper local community project?

Ah yes, the ‘how did I end up in Tanzania’ question. So it wasn’t until University, that I learned about ’appropriate technology.’ My mind was opened as I realized technology isn’t just fun and interesting widgets, but technology can be used to transform lives. I thought relevant, accessible technology might be a key part of the solution to improving quality of life in a lot of economically developing places. So I started thinking about how I could design those missing technologies. I don’t have an engineering background, and that’s also an interesting point: you don’t need a professional degree to work in tech! So I got by with an undergraduate degree in astrophysics to work on some interesting projects, such as an MIT D-Lab spin-off startup, where I worked as a design intern to improve a solar-powered autoclave. The autoclave basically used mirrors to focus light onto an insulated pressure cooker so it could reach the temperature and pressure to safely sterilize surgical tools. These autoclaves were designed for Nicaraguan rural health clinics, where they didn’t have reliable electricity.

Candid shot of Debbie hard at work in the Twende meeting / classroom

Like anyone else designing for a new context, I had to do some work ‘in the field,’ and I realized, wow, all these hotels, flights, and meetings, all of this feels like we’re using a lot of money and people’s time – just to build relationships and understand local manufacturing and materials? Wouldn’t it be more ideal if technologies were just created by people who were from and knew that context, instead of from the outside? Wouldn’t it be more sustainable in almost every way, if instead of focusing on designing technologies, we focused on teaching design to people from different backgrounds? After all, creativity is a lot about new perspectives, and what sort of solutions and technologies could we unearth if more people were comfortable enough to share their ideas?

So when I heard about Bernard and Twende, their local origins and ethos really resonated: Just trying to help people see themselves as creative problem solvers, to create their own solutions to their challenges.

Twende’s snapchat geofilter and a view of nearby Mount Meru

Right, so now, you’re executive director here. What does that mean exactly? Does that signify a transition from doing the technical work to supporting it?

Yes, definitely. My main role is to make sure this place can run and grow. When I first came, my job was supposed to be to write grants. But I quickly realized we weren’t ready for that yet. We needed more systems and processes to make sure we could be responsible and effective with all resources, including funding and time. A lot of people see grants as short term solutions, but if you want to create a financially sustainable organization, you need to make sure that there’s long term return. In the for profit world, ROI (Return On Investment) describes money, but in our non profit space, it’s more focused on impact. That’s much more difficult to quantify and maximize. How do you measure impact? What does that even mean? I think that’s super interesting. At Twende, we constantly confirm we are contributing to our vision: More local technology solutions to local challenges – and we also ask: how can we continue doing it better?

There’s a lot more we could talk about there re: maximizing impact. But for now, can you tell me more about the rest of your team?

Two of the founders have moved on, but still help out where they can. Even people who aren’t involved in the day-to-day try to contribute. And that’s great because every little thing can help, especially when working with people who understand what we’re doing and why.

The Twende team doing an exercise at their annual review

In terms of everyday staff, Bernard, one of the founders, and Chris, who’s our creativity trainer, are in charge of developing our hands-on creativity outreach programs and running them. They can run these project-based workshops with a range of people, from those who are illiterate and university students to small-holder farmers and corporate staff. Epifania is our outreach coordinator working with different local partners to organize those trainings. Right now she’s mostly focused on youth organizations and schools. She also helps implement some of the ME&L (Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning) we were talking about earlier, and is now learning a bit of marketing and communications so she can accurately share our programs and bring innovators to Twende. Frank’s our workshop manager, ensuring the physical spaces are functional, environmentally sensitive, and inspirational. Fadhilina is our newest addition – she manages administration, learning financial, legal, and HR management on the job. Our team is very learning-centric, with most of us figuring out best practices here at Twende and continuing to improve them. The fourth co-founder, Jim, actually invested his own retirement pension into building the physical place and can take credit for legally registering and setting up the organization, easier said than done here in Tanzania. He now works on developing conservation agriculture technologies and mentoring local innovators.

Of course, we also have many shorter-term volunteers. In the last 3.5 years I’ve been here, we’ve hosted over 65 volunteers. That’s a lot. Everyone comes with different expertise and expectations, and some have made an especially positive impact here. For example, right now we regularly run introduction to circuits training in local secondary schools. Usually it’s the first time these secondary schoolers have ever seen electrical components in real life, so it’s really quite eye opening for them. All of that curriculum came from collaborations between our staff, specifically Chris, and volunteers: An MIT professor made the initial electronics lesson plan, and Chris and a group of interns developed it into an affordable DIY torch and solar phone charger. Pairing volunteers’ book knowledge with Chris’ incredible hands-on and local knowledge resulted in a really great way to introduce electronics to Tanzanian youth, which we regularly use today.

An example of Frank’s tool organization

Do you have a favorite success story here at Twende?

We have some people who’ve taken on a technology and just run. Like Edgar, a local, 17 year old secondary school student. He was working on some recycling initiatives on his own and met an intern from the Central African Republic here who’d worked on melting plastic bags into bricks. Edgar started experimenting with formulas, molds, roofing tiles, using different colored plastic, and managed to make a pretty solid brick. People started getting really interested, someone even put in an order to buy a hundred. So he realized this project could be something bigger, and he entered some competitions. He received quite a lot of attention and won money to support his work. He came with so much determination, that once he found an idea, he just flew. Tanzanian youth have potential— genuine potential, stuff that everyone including we US Americans can learn from. So making sure folks have the platform, tools, and exposure to different resources and ideas is really important. And that’s where Twende fits.

The Twende Karakana (Swahili for workshop), with two local secondary school students spending their Christmas holiday working on their idea: ‘a peanut heater’

But success isn’t just Edgar’s story, Tanzanian youth like Jesse who started Avomeru, or other folks who have managed to win competitions and funding for their technologies. In one of our Creative Capacity Building workshops, with a group of middle aged farmers, there was a woman who used a hammer for the first time during our training. She hasn’t invented the next disruptor yet, but when she needed a new chicken coop, instead of going to the store and buying one as she usually would, she made one! And to me, that’s amazing. It’s the mentality change. Instead of thinking “I need to get this from outside,” she thought, “I can make this myself,” and that change, that increase of creative confidence, is the reason I do this work.

On the flip side, what are the biggest challenges Twende faces? Do you think they’re common to other community makerspaces or unique to your context?

Twende’s moving from a stage where we’ve tried a bunch of things, and now we have to make some decisions about what we want to do and where we want to go, and that’s really hard. Because part of the ethos of any community makerspace is that atmosphere of experimentation. But if you’re trying to be a more formal organization, you’re pushed to have a focus.

We have never wanted to impose some progressive, outsider philosophy. Instead, we want to offer exposure to new ideas and the optional opportunity to join us. I’m not just talking about local vs. international – because even our Tanzanian staff knows they see the world a bit differently from many of their neighbors. But how do we find the folks quietly thinking of solutions to challenges and support them? How do we make sure all people, not just the ‘usual’ suspects feel like they have the capacity to create?

We focus on finding and supporting innovators, and we wonder –  do people in Arusha want to build their creative capacity? I’m not saying they don’t, but are they able to prioritize technology development when there are other obligations needed to survive? That’s a big challenge in our context.

Bernard working on making his version of a more affordable solar-powered water heater, using local & recycled parts

That reminds me of another initiative y’all are starting now— the challenge prize. Can you talk a little more about that?

What we’ve realized is our standard workshops, lasting from a couple hours to five days, do not provide folks deep enough design exposure to justify prioritizing making, especially for folks who are new to design and technology. So we’ve decided to pilot a new initiative with secondary school / high school students where a student can win the equivalent of a year of school fees if they come up with technology that helps them save & store water. All semi-finalist students (up to 20) will participate in our hands-on Creative Capacity Building workshop, be invited to come to Twende to use the makerspace tools and receive personalized technical advising, and be provided money for materials to develop their own prototypes. The 400 tzs (about 25 US cents) we offer students for a bus trip to Twende is critical, and because of these logistical needs, we participated in a crowdfunding accelerator to raise money. Like most makerspaces anywhere in the world, we’re figuring out financial sustainability and experimenting with different ideas. We have exceeded our initial $5,000 goal to ‘graduate’ from the accelerator to earn a permanent place on the website. Realizing people really do support your work is one of the most amazing feelings in the world, and it brings us into the new year with a renewed sense of motivation and determination.

Well congrats! Thank you so much for your time, and keep up the good work!

My pleasure, thank you! Happy 2018 :)