The Rural Lab

How do you accelerate the rise of rural Tanzanian villages out from poverty? Develop a sustainable model enhancing overall economic welfare and employment opportunities for rural Tanzanian villages powered by sustainable energy and agriculture.
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Background of the Challenge

Tanzania is one of the world’s poorest economies in terms of per capita income, averaging US$864.90 per year –equivalent to less than 9% of the global average. It is East Africa’s largest country, with a population of over 53.4 million with an average annual population growth rate (1960-2015) of 3.1 per cent and expected to reach 82.6million people by 2030. It has a population density of 60 per square kilometers and is widely dispersed, with around 70% of the population living in rural areas. In those rural areas there exists significant variation in population distribution; for instance, in the arid regions population density is as low as one person per square kilometer, while in the water-rich main highland that figure is closer to 53 people per square kilometer.[1]

A supermajority of the population is engaged in agriculture, with 80% of men and 84% of women earning their livelihood through agriculture. Tanzania’s agriculture sector is mostly comprised of rural smallholders who rely on agriculture for survival. It makes up 70% of total income for rural households. Meanwhile, 53% of households derive 75% or more of their income from self-employed farming. Despite agriculture being a dominant force in the Tanzanian economy, only 5% of all cultivated land in Tanzania was irrigated as of 2016.

Tanzania spends significant resources ($421.8million or ~88% of it’s entire Agricultural budget) on food imports despite the act that the country is considered food self-sufficient with food production exceeding 100 per cent of demand in years of adequate rainfall. Despite growing mainly staple crops, almost half of the 30 regions experienced food insecurity and shortages during the past 5 to 7 years due to extreme weather conditions

Another issue in the region is gender inequality. Despite composing the majority of small-land farmers, women rarely own land. This inequality runs deep and affects all aspects of a woman’s life in Tanzania, making it less likely for them to have access to education, electricity, or water. The majority perceive their villages and homesteads as underprivileged and themselves as without opportunity. Due to a lack of sufficient information and exposure, many people do not see the potential in their environment, indigenous knowledge, and culture. The unfortunate trend is that many move to towns and cities in search of economic opportunities, leaving behind women and the elderly.

The last issue we will address is rural electrification. Only 7% of rural people and 40% of urban people have access to electricity. The lack of access to energy seriously constrains Tanzania’s potential for growth and levels of earning.

The Challenge

iTEC is is a non-profit social enterprise whose current intervention for rural Tanzania was  electrification through a renewable energy microgrids, development of irrigation systems for rural farms, and promotion of entrepreneurship and innovation through a business incubator. They are funded by the Government of Korea and working with the Nelson Mandela AfricanInstitute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST).

Given that context, our challenge was to develop a sustainable model enhancing overall economic welfare and employment opportunities for rural Tanzanian villages which would increase social equity, be a net environmental benefit, and increase personal agency. On top of that it must be a holistic application to the system, be a market incentive structure and should be both sustainable and scalable.

The Approach

We first took steps to understand the systems that operate in and around rural Tanzanian villages. Through interviews and research we mapped out how separate elements of the system interacted with each other, and where there were nexus points and feedback loops within the system.During this understanding phase, we identified a few recurring themes -electricity, agriculture, education, and women’s equality. Through our interviews and research we heard consistently that women do the bulk of the work on the farm, in the household and caring for children, though get little of the credit and decision-making power, and are repeatedly marginalized. The lack of access to and quality of education was also a repeated factor that stifles the potential for individual employment and the development ofTanzania. The necessity for access to electricity emerged as not only a basic necessity but as a force multiplier as it would allow for labor saving machinery, freeing up time for women to do other forms of work like child rearing and agricultural work. By examining the system extensively, we concluded that these were four leverage points where a small intervention would have an outsized effect on the system.

After identifying these leverage points, we focused on how to potentially change these elements in the Tanzanian rural system and where would be the most effective entry point to do so. We wanted to design our interventions in such a way that they would reinforce one another to create a system wide change. Specifically, we looked at how agriculture, education, and women’s empowerment could be change points that would create virtuous cycles between them and ultimately work together to help lift the community.  

While acknowledging the critical importance of electrification as an intervention, we determined that iTEC was already been doing significant work in that aspect, and our true value add would be to look beyond the provision of basic infrastructure. We therefore decided to leverage the social infrastructure that they developed around energy to make these interventions easier. In the process of building out it’s microgrid iTEC had organized a village committee to oversee and operate the micro grid, and we identified this committee as an entry point for our intervention.

When further exploring agricultural challenges faced by the village, we realized that there were no formal agricultural groups or association to help villagers share knowledge with each other, despite operating in a very collaborative society. In fact, common practice amongst farmers was to copy the most successful farmer and hope for the best. This practice is particularly detrimental because it often leads to an overproduction of a specific crop, decreasing the value of said crop in the market amongst all farmers. Organized agricultural groups have the potential to create efficiencies within the community and generate outsized returns.

While remapping the system and integrating new input gathered, we also found that agricultural information/knowledge sharing and access to outside markets would also have significant effects on the system. The knowledge sharing could create better production and efficiencies in their agricultural practices. Providing the appropriate infrastructure for storage and processing and opening up these rural areas to access outside markets would then create stronger supply chains and improved opportunities for income stability throughout the cropping seasons.

The community center and control building for the micro grid inspired our idea to create a community hub that could act as a physical space for training, knowledge and experience sharing, and community building. We also felt that the village committees that were in charge of maintaining the grid was a form of self-organization that could be transformative if leveraged more broadly. The theme of operating as a collective society is already present in the founding culture of Tanzania and in our interviews we found that this societal fabric is most influential on the village level. An example includes that several rural villages had what they call VICOBAs or Village Community Banks, which serve asa lending circle for several villages. This lead us to believe the best way of achieving a scalable and sustainable solution was to ensure it was not only community based but community led.


From our understanding of the challenges and potential levers, we determined that organizing a community center based around agriculture and knowledge sharing targeted at women would be the best entry point for our intervention. The community center aggregates the community’s needs and ambitions and in turn, provides this information to outside markets and organizations so that they can help meet the needs of and offer opportunities for the community. We specifically explored how community data and access to community members can help proven social enterprises more efficiently achieve impact at scale through bringing small business opportunities that rural villagers can run as local entrepreneurs. Ultimately the community center will create a Rural Lab - offering women’s groups, training opportunities, prototyping, and opportunities for both villagers(Rural Lab Members) and outside organizations with mission alignment.Tactically, the Rural Lab allows enterprises and innovators looking to prototype and test products for the developing world to engage with their enduser in real-time. This will ultimately lead to products and solutions that better meet the needs of the community, since they were a key part of the process, and will also provide a learning opportunity and chance for advancement for those in the community.  

The Rural Lab and Community Center is designed to develop community and empower them to solve for their challenges rather than relying on outside intervention and aid. The Rural Lab specifically targets women as early adopters, because globally, women have been proven more likely to self-organize and research shows that empowering women leads to greater transformation over time of the entire community.

The initial need finding that the Rural Labs facilitate would be an entry point and fertile ground for innovators and entrepreneurs. The Rural Lab will help social enterprises, entrepreneurs, and innovators connect with communities whose problems they’re solving for.Identifying the communities that suffer from the problems that these social enterprises are solving for would simplify their expansion plans. As a guiding principle, the rural lab will only funnel innovators and entrepreneurs who promise increase social equity, be a net environmental benefit, and increase personal agency into the villages it operates in.

The innovation and activity that happens in these Rural Labs would create economic opportunities for Tanzanian villages.These opportunities would create a vibrant environment where employment, income, innovation, social equity and environmental benefits would come hand in hand. Communities with the Rural Lab will be in a position to better satisfy community needs. In the long-term, we expect a majority of community needs to be fulfilled by Rural Lab Members themselves. We see this occurring at increasing rates after members are exposed to more opportunities and ways of thinking.



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