Two members of a team that won the UMass Amherst segment of the Hult Prize – the world’s largest student competition and startup platform for social good – are from the College of Engineering. Chemical Engineering undergraduate Kavya Ramachandran and Engineering major Achintya Kumar belong to the Building Better Villages team, which aims to improve the residential foundation for rural communities in India and beyond.
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On Thursday, November 29, Building Better Villages won the Hult Prize at UMass Amherst and advanced to the regional competition in Boston this spring. The third team member is Computer Science major Aashish Kumar.
In partnership with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the Hult Prize is an innovative, crowdsourcing platform to identify and launch catalytic social ventures that aim to solve the planet’s most pressing challenges. Student teams from more than 350 colleges and universities, in over 150 countries, compete for a chance to secure $1 million in funding to launch a sustainable social venture. The 10th-anniversary challenge is to build the foundations of a venture that will provide meaningful work for 10,000 youth within the next decade.
As Achintya Kumar explains the Building Better Villages social venture, “So, in essence, the idea is that villages in underdeveloped and developed countries around the world share the same problems, like lack of clean drinking water, lack of a proper supply of electricity and sanitation facilities, lack of proper education, connectivity, and transportation, and, most importantly, employment. I and my team at Building Better Villages believe these are all engineering problems with engineering solutions. And hence we try to come up with engineering solutions for all of these said problems.”
In response to this overarching social issue in villages everywhere, the Building Better Villages team designed simple, prefabricated, predesigned, and replicable engineering solutions to these problems.
“These easy-to-execute solutions won’t just be implemented by outside help,” says Achintya Kumar. “We want the villagers themselves to implement these predesigned prefab solutions…We’re going to skill-train and equip unemployed youth from the villages to implement these solutions in their villages, and get hired by other villages to do the same.”
It’s sort of a pyramid approach to building better villages from the ground up. “They are effectively engineering their and others’ way into prosperity,” explains Achintya Kumar. “We can create self-sufficient villages with nearly-free clean water, fuel, and electricity.”
The team members will start with a single village, and there they will train a set of young people to implement these prefabricated engineering solutions to make their village better. “Once that’s done,” explains Achintya Kumar, “other villages can hire and pay the [young people] from the first village to implement these solutions in their villages too, because we can replicate these super-simple, effective solutions in the most cost-effective way. And therefore they can become better too, and this cycle continues.”
Achintya Kumar calls this whole process a “virtuous cycle,” which spreads outward in a life-enhancing, game-changing, and mind-altering way that helps support the villages, its inhabitants, and the Building Better Villages team itself. “If there’s a growth market, this is it,” he says.
“We have been doing this project for more than two years now,” says Achintya Kumar. “The project started when we presented this proposal at a national stage in India and got together a team to implement it. Ever since winning the Hult Prize, we have restarted the project and have put together a team in India and have payment agreements set with villages in North India and have started implementing our solutions in the villages. Right now we're only focusing on India due to our Indian roots, but we have plans to address villages in other Asian and African countries where it's feasible.”
The Hult Prize at UMass Amherst is sponsored by the Isenberg School of Management and the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship. (January 2019)