Working through partners, getting to market faster

The Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability class has launched several internationally known start-ups (including Embrace, Driptech and D.Light.) But main route for student teams to get their life-changing products into the hands of people in the developing world is by working with NGO partner organizations.

Working with partners is the quickest way to market: it eliminates the need to create a business model and distribution infrastructure, so that students can focus on getting the best possible product to people who need it.

Professor Jim Patel, who founded the class, and Erica Estrada, who teaches the class and directs our Social Entrepreneurship Lab, discuss why this is such a critical route-to-market for students in the class:

One team that’s in the process of handing off its product to a partner for distribution is Drinkwell, a team from the 2009 Extreme class. They worked on how to add micronutrients to food, an unsolved challenge in places where food is processed in tiny batches without standardized equipment. Their partner, Project Healthy Children, was interested in enriching grain with some of the same essential micronutrients that are used in the U.S. and Europe.

The Drinkwell team went to Rwanda for a needfinding trip during their class to look for a place—like a local grain mill—where they might be able to add micronutrients to the food supply. But they found that the small grain mills, often run by a single person in a hut, used varied equipment and didn’t lend themselves to a standardized delivery of nutrients. In order to find another way they might intersect with the lives of people in the village, the students spent days with a woman from the village, noting where she went and what she did every day. They created a sort of a heat map where she spent time, and found that every day she made two trips to the village well. “That got us thinking that we might be able to do something with water,” said Brian Ng, a member of the team.

The team developed a simple device that can attach to a manual village pump, which doses a precise amount of water-soluble iron into the drinking water. Iron helps reduce anemia, a common but serious health problem. By the end of the school year, the students had a rough working prototype; they wanted to see it through to market but without dropping other projects and jobs.

“We knew this was something that could have a real impact on people’s lives, and when you’re in a place like this and you tell people you’re going to do something to help, they believe you and they trust you. We didn’t want to let them down,” Ng said. “But at the same time, there were other things that we wanted to be able to do.”

The students struck a balance. For the last year, the original team—as well as other volunteers and employees who joined after the class—have continued to work on the product. With the support of Project Healthy Children, the DrinkWell team hopes to deploy a pilot program in multiple locations in Africa in the next six months.

“It’s really important to have this avenue,” said Ng, who’s one of the founders of WENG Motors. “It allowed us to be able to move this forward, because a start-up wasn’t a route that was feasible for us at this point. Working on this has impacted everything I do: it’s given me a different lens on every other project I’ve worked on. It’s an incredibly impactful class.”