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  • 03.24.17

One Of These 5 Student Ideas For Refugee Tech Will Win A $1 Million Prize

This year’s Hult Prize is looking for “sustainable and scalable, for-good, for-profit enterprises” to help refugees around the world. Meet the five finalists.

One Of These 5 Student Ideas For Refugee Tech Will Win A $1 Million Prize
Photo: Ashley Wiley/Getty Images Photo: Ashley Wiley/Getty Images

There are many reasons for student-entrepreneurs to enter this year’s Hult Prize, including the $1 million check (the most of any social good innovation contest anywhere), and the chance of standing on stage with Bill Clinton as he announces the winner this Fall. Bloomberg Businessweek has dubbed the Hult, which recognizes and develops new social enterprise ideas, “the Nobel Prize for B-schools.”

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Photo: courtesy the Hult Prize

For several team contestants, though, the motivation is more personal. This year’s prize is focused on the needs of refugees, and some have family who have been refugees at one time, know refugees directly, or are refugees themselves (the University of Calgary team includes a refugee from Liberia). “Both my parents were refugees 30 years ago,” says Joseph Truong, a member of the Empower team from York University, Toronto. “I was able to get a lot insight from what the camps were like, and help with our idea.” Truong’s Vietnamese parents stayed in refugee camps in Malaysia in the 1970s, before resettling in Canada.

Clinton announced this year’s challenge at the Clinton Global Initiative last September. The rubric calls on teams to “build sustainable and scalable, for-good, for-profit enterprises” to “reawaken human potential” and “restore the dignity” of 10 million people. Hult says it received 50,000 ideas in all. Now five finalists remain: three from Canada, (University of Calgary, Alberta; University of Waterloo, Ontario; York University), plus Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), in Mexico City, and Rutgers, in New Jersey.

Empower is developing a way to spread internet access in refugee camps. Truong says the team looked at other issue areas, like education, health care, or ways for refugees to establish their identities. But getting online seemed like a foundational need. “Across regions and refugee camps, that was a constant issue of connectivity,” he says. “We’re thinking how we’re able to provide that in a cheap and effective manner. Giving access to information to refugees for opportunities in education, employment, [and] health care greatly enhances their lives.”

Internet access sometimes costs refugees as much as 40% of their income, reports show. Empower’s idea involves creating wireless “mesh” networks and distributing personalized receivers, possibly in the form of Wi-Fi bracelets (the design and business model are still being hashed out).

Photo: Alexander Koerner/Stringer

Meanwhile, Moneeb Mian, a member of the Roshi Rides team from Rutgers University, was inspired by his uncle, who lived in Orangi Town, a huge informal settlement in Karachi, Pakistan. “He was a squatter refugee there, and built his life there from scratch, driving rickshaws and buses,” says team spokeswoman Hanaa Lakhani, talking of the uncle. “Eventually, he was able to make it out of there, and to America.”

Roshi Rides wants to build community transit hubs in such settlements, filling in for a lack of formal infrastructure. Powered by solar panels, the stations will offer up to 30 six-to-eight seat eRickshaws for hire. The cost will be about $0.13 a ride. The American-Pakistani team is setting up a pilot at Orangi Town this summer. Within two years, it hopes to be serving all 2.5 million people at the settlement, the world’s largest.

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Knowing refugees personally lets the students understand a little of what it’s like for the 65 million people who have been forcibly displaced around the world, according to United Nations figures. More than 20 million of those are cross-border refugees, and half of them children–the most at any time since World War II. About 860 million people live in permanent, illegal camps like Orangi.

The other finalists take on different refugee needs. ITAM’s idea, called U-Gas, wants to build ecological dry toilets and urinals in camps, cleaning them on a daily basis and collecting biowaste to help defray the cost. “In refugee camps, they don’t have toilets or have few of them. That causes diseases in refugees that are deadly without medicines,” says spokeswoman Rebeca Toledo, in an email. It plans to generate natural gas from the waste and then sell it to local businesses.

EPOCH, the team from the University of Waterloo, emphasizes resources already at hand in refugee communities: people’s skills. Its proposed time-banking platform is a “reciprocal service exchange” where refugees offer skills as a currency for goods they need.

“All of our cofounders are from second-generation immigrant and refugee families,” says EPOCH’s spokeswoman Lisa Tran. “We personally have either experienced or witnessed the struggles our parents went through when arriving in a new country. Many of our personal experiences have inspired our idea of creating a resilient community where anyone who joins is instantly welcomed and provided with support.” (In our special feature on refugees last summer, we offered many other tech-flavored ideas for helping refugees: including housing, resettlement programs, early warning alerts, and identity management systems.)

All the proposed ideas are necessarily works-in-progress, says Bob Schulz, a business professor at the University of Calgary. Skill2scale, the university’s entry, was originally envisaged as a smartphone platform helping refugees develop cultural and language skills. But the concept could change over the summer as the team spends more time with refugees, and goes through an iteration process. It’s important to ask refugees what they need, not to impose a solution.

As well as money and publicity, the Hult Prize also runs an accelerator program starting in June. The teams will test their ideas over the summer, before the winner is announced in September.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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