This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Four students at University College London who launched aptly named Rice Inc. have been awarded the $1 million Hult Prize to meet the official challenge to “build a scalable, sustainable social enterprise that harnesses the power of energy to transform the lives of 10 million people by 2025.”
Their plan is to make fast, effective and affordable rice drying available to smallholder farmers who, lacking the technology, typically lose about 20% of their harvest in the drying process. Today, those farmers simply spread their rice on the ground in the sun, where is it vulnerable to weather, birds and other pests that may eat or contaminate the rice.
“We solve inefficiencies in the rice supply chain caused by an existing power imbalance between smallholder farmers and millers,” says Kisum Chan, the team’s chief marketing officer. “We solve this by providing farmers with access to drying and storage facilities which can potentially unlock the true value of their harvest.”
Originally, the foursome, Lincoln Lee, CEO, Julia Vannaxay, COO, Vannie Koay, CFO and Chan, planned to sell the farmers innovative, affordable solar dryers. When they got out in the field in Myanmar, however, the farmers were not enthusiastic. Be sure to watch my interview with Lee, Chan and Koay in the video player at the top of this article.
The solar dryers were faster than leaving the rice in the sun and the rice was protected from the weather and pests, but the solar dryers were slow compared to the farmers’ preferred solution: biomass-fueled dryers.
The team did their homework and realized that by burning the biomass waste from the production of rice—including the rice husks—the solution would have only a small carbon impact—the energy necessary to blow the fans. By accelerating the drying, however, more rice could be dried more quickly. The benefit of avoided food waste could offset the carbon used in drying.
At a cost of about $6,000, the dryers are not affordable for smallholder farmers, Koay explains. The team determined to buy the machines and then provide use of the machines as a service to farmers on an affordable basis.
Their solution increases the number of rice farmers can sell as well as the price at which they can sell it because it is more consistently dried and there is less loss due to pests. The team hopes to double the income of smallholder farmers.
Increasing food supply is also important. “Half the world depends on rice and actually what happens is that we–according to current projections—we probably will run out of food or we won’t have enough to feed our population and the half the world that eats the rice will probably be the first ones affected.” Says Lee. “But actually, we do grow enough rice. Are we just wasting a lot of it.”
Athina Kafetsiou, executive coach and CEO at The Executive Lounge, served as a judge at the campus round of the competition. She offered to mentor the team as they moved forward to the next rounds. Ultimately, she was invited to join the board, which she did.
“The commercial stamina and health of their business model has not just one, but a number of built-in components for addressing critical social challenges: solving global food insecurity, enabling generations to skip the poverty loop, and creating more equitable ecosystems of supply and demand without adversely impacting the world’s finite resources,” Kafetsiou says.
Koay explains that 100,000 students around the world participated in the Hult Prize competition. The competition winnows the field at the university level and then in regional competitions that eventually yield finalists, all of whom receive training and coaching to help them reach their objectives.
The $1 million prize is provided as an investment in the enterprise, rather than a grant, helping to assure some accountability for building the enterprise—and potentially improving the food supply for 10 million people by 2025.