Innovation for Those Who Need It: Winners of the 2015 Global Social Venture Competition

How do you measure social impact?  What about a low-cost filteration system that could protect untold millions of people from poisoning by arsenic in their water?

Drinkwell, a two-year-old social enterprise that took first place on Friday at this year’s Global Social Venture Competition, has developed both the technology and a business model to accomplish just that.

Drinkwell was one of 18 finalists in the competition, which was founded in 1999 by students at Berkeley-Haas and is hosted here each spring.  The final round of judging marked the culmination of a year-long process that attracted more than 500 entries from 37 nations.

Taking second place was ReMaterials, an American start-up that produces and sells an affordable and reliable new roofing material for impoverished slum-dwellers in make-shift shacks.

Lakheni, a South African venture, won third place for a business that dramatically reduces the cost of consumer staples for rural villagers by organizing local child-care providers into hubs for aggregating individual orders into bulk purchases.

Now in its 16th year, the Global Social Venture Competition awards a total of $50,000 in prize money to social entrepreneurs who demonstrate viable technologies and concrete business plans to relieve urgent social problems.   Before reaching the final round of judging at Haas each April, entrepreneurs compete in regional competitions organized by a global network of business schools in the United States, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

If there was a common link between this year’s finalists, it was that most of them offered a combination of new technology and innovative business strategies to reach the impoverished communities they were trying to help.

The full array of this year’s innovators included an Indonesian firm that uses garbage collection as a means to finance health insurance premiums; an American venture that aims to slash the exorbitant fees that foreign workers pay for sending money back to their families at home; and a Danish firm that uses mesh-network technology to link rescue workers when natural disasters knock out conventional telecommunication networks.

Here is a recap of the social ventures that won first, second, and third places:

Drinkwell: Technology and Micro-Entrepreneurs to Stop Arsenic Poisoning

Drinkwell began as a collaboration between a pioneering professor of chemistry and two Fulbright Fellows in South Asia who wanted to protect people from the slow poisoning of arsenic in unfiltered groundwater.

Over the past several decades, impoverished communities have obtained a soaring share of their drinking water from deep wells that reach into underground aquifers. Though originally hailed as a life-saving source of seemingly clean water, much of the groundwater  contains small amounts of arsenic that gradually poison people over time.  The World Health Organization estimates that 48 million people in India and Bangladlesh alone are being poisoned by arsenic. World-wide, as many as 200 million people may be at risk.

Arup K. SenGupta, professor of chemistry at Lehigh University, developed an efficient and low-cost filtration system that uses arsenic-adsorbing resins.  SenGupta teamed up with two Fulbright Fellows who were studying arsenic filtration systems in India and Bangladesh: Michael German, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in environmental engineering at Lehigh; and Minhaj Choudary, who earned his bachelor’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University.

Drinkwell employs a system of local micro-entrepreneurs to incorporate its filtration systems into existing tubewells. The filters cost about $8,000, and the entrepreneurs earn a return by selling the filtered water to people in their communities. Drinkwell employs engineers to make sure the filters are run properly and to perform routine maintenance.

The Drinkwell system is already being used by some 200,000 people in South Asia, and it has won widespread praise from experts who see it as a far more efficient and practical solution than any other technology on the market.


ReMaterials: A Roof that Offers Real Shelter


ReMaterials, based in Ahmedabad, India, developed an innovative and leak-proof roofing material for families in India’s slums. Many slum-dwellers rely on corrugated metal for their roofs, but metal roofs lead to unbearably high indoor temperatures and often leak as a result of corrosion and cracking. Worse yet, the corrugated metal contains toxic elements that can seep into the home as a roof decays.

ReMaterials produces a durable, waterproof, bright blue roofing tile from cardboard waste and other garbage. The ModRoof tiles fit together much the way Lego blocks snap together.  At an installed cost of $3 per square foot, the tilesUC Berkeley, where graduate students in the Center for Green Materials collaborated with ReMaterials to develop the tiles. are far cheaper than concrete and far more reliable than corrugated metal.

To make its roofing tiles affordable, ReMaterials teamed up with a micro-finance lender to finance installation over a 30-month period.

The ModRoof stemmed in part from work at UC Berkeley, where students in the Center for Green Materials collaborated with ReMaterials to develop the tiles.


Laheni: Aggregating the Buying Power of Village Families


Lakheni, based in South Africa, grew out of a collaboration between Nokwethu Khojane and Lauren Drake when both women were pursuing MBA degrees at the University of Capetown.

Lakheni taps into South Africa’s well-established tradition of local child-care organizations — creches — to tackle a common problem in remote, low-income communities: the high prices of ordinary consumer staples as a result of of low buying volumes.

As graduate students, Khojane and Drake had originally set out with a different goal in mind:  to improve early childhood education. But they soon recognized that South Africa’s local child-care providers could be mobilized to help hard-pressed families save money on consumer staples.

A typical crèche provides day-care for 50 to 100 children, which makes each one a hub for as many as 100 families.   Creches tend to be both trusted and well-organized. As a result, Khojane and Drake realized, the child-care providers were ideally positioned to serve as a social network to aggregate bulk purchases.  Through Lakhemi, Khojane and Drake organized the child-care creches into buying groups that order staple goods in bulk and obtain lower prices. They also established a system that allows villagers to place orders over their mobile phones, using a mobile-phone based currencies such as M-pesa.  They also enlisted the services of South Africa’s informal local retailers — spazas —  to obtain and deliver the goods.

All in all, a win-win — the key to social enterprise.










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