In a report published last month (20 January), researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States show details of a new framework for technology evaluation that could help resolve the challenge of selecting the right product from a wide array on the market.
“We still do not know how the poor consume and make their preferences. This evaluation model is an effort to design products that reach people at the bottom.”
Bishwapriya Sanyal, MIT
The MIT researchers created the evaluation model through the Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE), funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Global Development lab, to help solve the problem of non-governmental organisations selecting technologies for users based mainly on consumer reports and word-of-mouth.
“We still do not know how the poor consume and make their preferences. This evaluation model is an effort to design products that reach people at the bottom,” CITE director Bishwapriya Sanyal told SciDev.Net in an interview last week (26 January).
According to Sanyal, who is the Ford international professor at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the total expected award value of the USAID grants to CITE is US$10 million over five years.
Ticora V. Jones, director of the USAID Higher Education Solutions Network, says the evaluations will transform how technologies for development work are chosen.
Robert Ddamulira, the energy coordinator of World Wide Fund Regional Office for Africa, tells SciDev.Net: “Low income communities are risk-averse and much of their purchases for long-term assets are through referrals and word-of-mouth, so this research by MIT is a timely and useful process. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of having such third-party verification processes in place.”
Sanyal adds that evaluation requires recreating an environment, which is difficult.
The evaluation model has been tested only in India and Uganda, Sanyal says, noting that upon carrying out an evaluation on water filters in India, the MIT team found that the poor were using Sarees (Indian women clothing) to filter their water instead.
In 2013, the team evaluated solar lanterns in western Uganda. They found that people were more concerned about charging their mobile phones than getting light from the solar lanterns. They were also not putting them up on the roof in the sun to charge, but hiding them behind windows fearing thefts.
According to the researchers CITE evaluates three properties of technologies: suitability, how the product performs its intended purpose; scalability, the ability of the product to be scaled up at an effective cost; and sustainability, the likelihood of the product being sustained in different contexts.
“Ultimately, evaluations have to be done where the products will be supplied, so we are creating local hubs,” says Sanyal.
Ddamulira advises that the MIT team should integrate the process into public institutions with enforcement mandate to ensure that the results inform policy.
Link to report
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.