PLAN 72: Article
Developmental Entrepreneurship In Action

Student Insulation Project Could Impact Millions Around the World

A project from a class in developmental entrepreneurship taught by Alex (Sandy) Pentland, Director of the Digital Life Consortium at the Media Lab, along with lecturer Joost Bonsen, has developed a design created in the Building Technology program of the Department of Architecture that holds considerable promise for millions of people around the world.

An estimated one billion people – mostly in rural villages and in shanty towns surrounding big cities – live in houses with roofs made out of thin sheets of corrugated metal. These houses become unbearably hot in the summer, deafeningly noisy when heavy rains pound on the bare metal and freezing in the winter when most of the heat from indoor stoves and heating devices escapes through the roof.

Three students from Pentland’s class think they have come up with a way to fix these problems while also generating jobs and income for local people. Team Ghonsla, as they call themselves – Ghonsla means ‘nest’ in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan – are Zehra Ali, a graduate student in MIT’s School of Engineering, Emmanuel Arnaud of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Monica Le of the Harvard School of Public Health (who had both cross-registered into the MIT class). MIT alum Mubarik Imam (2006 EE) also later joined the team.

Based on a concept created a decade ago by professors Les Norford and Leon Glicksman working with graduate students in the building technology program, their approach is simple and straightforward: use local agricultural waste such as straw, held together with a binder made of local resins, to make insulating panels that can be installed beneath the existing corrugated metal panels.

The insulation panels can be manufactured locally, providing a way for local people to deliver an inexpensive product that meets a major local need and keep the profits in the community. And by introducing the insulated panels, the consumption of wood for heating could also be drastically reduced and greenhouse gas emissions would be cut, as would the negative health effects of indoor pollution from cooking fires. Win-win-win-win-win-win.

That is exactly this sort of thing Pentland’s class was designed to foster – the invention of new technologies and the creation of new organizations to address the challenges facing low-income communities throughout the world. To help prepare successful entrepreneurs to tackle those challenges, the class surveys case studies of both successful and failed businesses and explores the difficulties involved in deploying and diffusing products and services through entrepreneurial action.

By drawing on live and historical cases, especially from South Asia, Africa and Latin America – as well as Eastern Europe, China and other developing regions – the interdisciplinary class explores a range of established and emerging business models as well as new business opportunities enabled by technologies developed in MIT labs and beyond.

In keeping with the intentions of the class, Team Ghonsla has formed a company to develop and test the panels and then provide them to underserved markets. This summer, they are producing an initial test run of 300 panels to be installed in one school and 10 selected houses in Pakistan. They are trying out five different kinds of resins to see which is most effective and will track the panels' performance over the next year to provide solid in-the-field data before production begins on a large scale.

The plan won a $5K Yunus Innovation Challenge Award in MIT's annual IDEAS competition and $5K as a runners up in the Social Enterprise track at Harvard. The team has also secured another $10K of venture capital funding and has formed partnerships with a number of organizations – the World Wildlife Fund, which is interested in the prospect of reducing deforestation; Packages Ltd., one of the largest straw processing firms in Pakistan, which is interested in the commercial potential; and the Aga Khan Foundation, which is interested in poverty alleviation and improving living conditions in the northern areas.

These partnerships have enabled the pilot project and planning for the future scale-up of the project. NGOs and alumni networks in India, Afghanistan and Peru, areas with climates similar to Pakistan's, have also taken an interest.

This story is based on a story written by David Chandler, MIT News Office.