MIT launches a Consumer Reports for the developing world

Solar lanterns in Uganda, not just a light source. Photo: CITE
Solar lanterns in Uganda, not just a light source. Photo: CITE

A group at MIT is developing a Consumer Reports for the developing world, hoping to vet products sent in by aid agencies, philanthropic organizations, or well-meaning companies, and give consumers a scoresheet to help them guide their purchases.

Funded by the United States Agency for International Development, USAID, the CITE group, which stands for Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation, released its first report this week evaluating the effectiveness of solar lanterns in Uganda. The devices look a bit like Nalgene water bottles, and soak up solar energy up during the day, then switch on at night.

The analysis of the solar lantern market in Uganda — where you can buy more than a dozen different lanterns, which cost between $14.17 and $79.99 — threw up some surprises.

“What surprised us is that the market was flooded but no one knew which one really works,” team leader and MIT professor Bishwapriya Sanyal said.

The researchers found that the best intentions of the producers didn’t always sync with how the products were used in the real-world. Makers of the solar lanterns intend for them to be placed on roofs to charge during the day, but most people wouldn’t leave them there for fear that they’ll get stolen. The biggest feature users were interested in: Would the solar charger also have a port to charge their cellphone? These key observations would change the way manufacturers made their devices, Sanyal said.

Sanyal says these findings can help producers tweak their products. But his goal was to look beyond products themselves, and ask questions about sustainability: Will a company selling the device be able to make money and support itself?

Sanyal claims that what makes CITE program unique is how engineers are involved in a big way. “We take [the device] apart in the lab and see how it’s really built and does it do what it’s supposed to do,” he said. CITE hopes this lantern report will be a rubric for others to come.

The team is completing a second project is in the Indian city of Ahmedabad, where some families eschew water filters and choose instead to filter their drinking water through the muslin folds of a sari.

The results are yet to be published, but Sanyal said they were able to demonstrate the extent to which a store-bought filter was more effective at filtering out bacteria than the cheaper makeshift solution. Sanyal believes an evidence-based approach would help steer consumers into making healthier choices about what products to buy.

CITE’s hopes their analyses will help international organizations make decisions as they make purchases for relief efforts — about what kinds of blankets or water purifiers to buy in the aftermath of a natural disaster, for example. Sanyal said he believes one reason that USAID decided to finance their efforts was because these are questions that they encounter all the time.

The next project, based in Uganda, is focused on evaluating small-scale grain containers for farmers who need to store their harvests before they sell. About 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted per year, and in the developing world, much of that waste takes place immediately after harvest, when produce is store before sale, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization within the United Nations.

Having access to storage options won’t just reduce waste, it’ll help farmers sell at a higher price, explained Jarrod Goentzel, a professor at MIT and Sanyal’s collaborator on CITE. Goentzel’s team is beginning a study among farmers to see which containers are most effective. “A big part of this program is training,” Goentzel said. “You have to train the farmers on how to use them.”

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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