NGO SolarAid awarded part of $1 million grant to apply students’ ideas to bring energy to rural homes throughout Africa

Press Release

Former US President Bill Clinton presented an international group of New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) students with the top prize for their solution to providing solar lighting to one million homes in Africa by 2013 at the finals of the Hult Global Case Challenge in New York on Thursday. Four NYUAD sophomore students, along with an NYU alumnus, were up against top student teams in the final stages of the international competition, emerging as one of three winners from the initial 4,000 participating teams. The NYUAD team was the sole finalist in its track that did not include any graduate students.

The annual competition hosted by Hult Business School — in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative and the Innovation, Excellence and Leadership Center — is the world’s largest crowdsourcing platform for social good, challenging student teams to present actionable solutions to achieve the social and economic development goals of leading NGOs in the areas of energy, education and housing. This year’s partner organizations — SolarAid, One Laptop Per Child, and Habitat for Humanity — will share a $1 million award to implement the ideas of the winning teams.

The NYUAD team — sophomores Madhav Vaidyanathan (India), Songyishu Yang (China), Muhammad Awais Islam (Pakistan), Gary Chien (Taiwan), and Abu Dhabi–based NYU alumnus Neil Parmar (Canada) — won the energy track of the competition for their idea of creating a strong network for after–sale customer care and maintenance for solar lamps. The students, supported by their faculty adviser NYUAD professor of Chemical Engineering Ramesh Jagannathan, conducted two research trips to Ethiopia and Kenya, during which they established the importance of building trust within the rural communities they hoped to impact.

While announcing the prize winners, President Clinton highlighted the importance of global collaboration amongst the team members representing five different nationalities, an embodiment of NYUAD's commitment to fostering cross–cultural exchange.

“I knew that NYUAD students would be well–situated to develop innovative solutions to hugely complex global issues, but I must admit that even I am amazed that they have done so in just their sophomore year,” NYU President John Sexton said. “The fact that this extraordinary group of young men and women, from five nations around the globe, could come together to create an intellectual team that could excel in a competition with some of the top undergraduate and graduate students from around the world, is just a hint of what’s to come from NYU Abu Dhabi.”

SolarAid CEO Steve Andrews said: “Our goal is to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by the end of this decade. That's simply a huge challenge, which will only be possible with massive innovation. Having the top students from around the world competing to come up with great ideas for how we will do this is an extraordinary boost. It's already changing the way we think and work.”

The students said that they were motivated by solving a very real problem, rather than winning a competition.

“If our model can actually achieve that goal and light up one million households, all of us will be very impressed and delighted that whatever we contributed to this can actually help those people out there,” Gary Chien said.

“The real journey starts now,” Muhammad Awais Islam added.

“NYU Abu Dhabi’s social enterprise is unique and innovative and capitalizes on an incremental pay business model. Through making access to electricity affordable and bite size, I am confident their model will be widely scaled and adopted through communities across Africa and beyond,” Ahmad Ashkar, founder and CEO of the Hult Global Case Challenge, said.

The team had advanced through levels of the competition, after thousands of students representing more than 130 countries participated in five regional competitions in Boston, Dubai, London, San Francisco, and Shanghai, in addition to an online competition. The NYUAD team competed against 15 institutions in the energy track during the Dubai regional event, before moving on to compete against regional finalists in the energy track from five other institutions.

Vice Chancellor of NYUAD Al Bloom said: “On behalf of the NYU Abu Dhabi and broader NYUAD communities, I congratulate our phenomenal students on their victory in the 2012 Hult Global Challenge. Our students’ success emerges from their extraordinary intelligence, imagination, perseverance, and commitment to humanity, and terrific support from faculty, staff, and alumni. Their achievement is a wonderful reflection of the intellectual qualities and core values of NYU Abu Dhabi.”

About NYU Abu Dhabi
NYU Abu Dhabi consists of a highly selective liberal arts and science college (including engineering), and a world center for advanced research and scholarship — all fully integrated with each other and connected to NYU in New York. Together, NYU New York and NYU Abu Dhabi form the backbone of a unique Global Network University, with faculty and students from either New York or Abu Dhabi spending “semesters away” at one or more of the numerous study abroad sites NYU maintains on five continents.