For the NYU Abu Dhabi team competing in the 2012 Hult Global Case Challenge, the proverb "two heads are better than one" could only have rung more truly if "two" was replaced by "five." Indeed, bringing together five individuals, with five very different perspectives, to come up with actionable solutions to the global poverty crisis led to the team's eventual success. The world's largest crowd-sourcing platform for social good, the Challenge was created to foster innovative ideas and solutions to global social issues. This year, thousands of students from 130 countries formed four- or five-person teams, each posed with tackling problems in one of three tracks: Energy, Education, or Housing.
The NYUAD team, an international group of juniors (then sophomores) — Madhav Vaidyanathan (India), Songyishu Yang (China), Muhammad Awais Islam (Pakistan), and Gary Chien (Taiwan) — along with NYU alumnus Neil Parmar (Canada), competed in the Energy track and came out on top in Dubai during one of five regional competitions held simultaneously around the globe. The team not only advanced to the international finals in New York City with 17 other teams, but also won their track. Along with the winners of the Housing and Education tracks, the NYUAD team will share the competition's USD 1 million grant among the three non-profit organizations paired with the teams to implement the students' winning ideas.
For the NYUAD team, which was paired with SolarAid — an organization that installs solar panels in rural areas across East and Southern Africa — the challenge was coming up with a plan to provide solar lighting to one million homes in Africa by 2013. As Yang explained, "Today, 120 million households in Africa are still off-grid, and the governments are not planning to set up electricity grids in more than 10 percent of these households in the near future. People use fire or kerosene to light up their homes, but they come with serious health problems and safety issues. Solar lanterns will not only provide a safe, clean light source, but also save a significant amount of money for the villagers over time and allow for longer working hours and more diversity in recreational life."
NYUAD'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.
Field Research to Solve Real World Problems
Motivated by solving a very real problem rather than winning a competition, the students began by determining the challenge's key issues and gathering data to construct their proposed solution. They also approached NYUAD faculty to help them along the way. Working with professors Ramesh Jagannathan (Engineering), Chetan Dave (Economics), and Yaw Nyarko (Economics), the students developed their case solutions by bouncing ideas off of their mentors. "It was great working with them," said Vaidyanathan. "They allowed us to think freely, but helped us filter our ideas. It gave us the freedom to learn something."
The team conducted two field research trips, one in Ethiopia, the other in Kenya, to gather information on the ground and test their model. While in Ethiopia, before the regional competition in Dubai, the students discovered something that would set their solution apart from all the others. "We realized that the general opinion is that solar parts are too expensive and people don't have the disposable income to afford them," said Vaidyanathan, "but people are willing, if you provide them with after-sale service." With this realization, the group set out to establish a model in which African communities could be mobilized to be part of the process. By fostering and reinforcing trust as part of the solar package, buyers wouldn't worry about the product breaking, and the solution would create jobs for local people — "mostly women," said Vaidyanathan, "as they have the propensity to distribute income." By making the community part of their "office aid," the team's model proved one of the most successful solutions to addressing their case challenge.
As Ahmad Ashkar, founder and CEO of the Hult Global Case Challenge, said, "NYUAD'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." Indeed, when introducing the NYUAD team at the regional competition, SolarAid CEO Steve Andrews said, "This team has come up with a simple but powerful solution, which I wish I could use." Little did he know that the wish would become reality just two months later.
In addition to differentiating themselves with a unique solution to their challenge, the members of the NYUAD team — the sole finalist in its track that did not include graduate students — were recognized for their diversity. While announcing the prizewinners, former US President Bill Clinton (whose organization, the Clinton Global Initiative, is a partner of the Hult Global Case Challenge) highlighted the importance of global collaboration amongst the team members, an embodiment of NYUAD's commitment to fostering cross-cultural exchange. "It's not just that we are from five different countries," said Yang. "We have five different mindsets and are five very different individuals," a fact that enabled the team to approach their challenge from five different angles and, from those various points of view, "understand the complexity of the issue," said Chien.
The process taught Yang how interdisciplinary the solution to a real-world problem can be. And now, with an implementable plan in hand, the students will positively transform the rural communities they hoped to impact. As Yang said, "We will actually be making some impact in this world."