Students develop entrepreneurial skills, bring solutions to women in Africa
Successful entrepreneurs have a knack for seeing opportunities that exist and finding ways to meet those needs in creative and innovative ways. City University of Seattle students are doing just that – identifying unmet needs around the world and responding in ways that have the potential to change people’s daily lives through their volunteer work in CityU Enactus.
The problem that students set out to solve was brought to them by a fellow student named Anthony from Gabon, Africa. He witnessed the struggles women in his country faced daily when cooking food over an open flame. In addition to having to acquire firewood every day, the women commonly developed respiratory and vision issues as a result of the smoke generated by their cook fires.
By flexing their own entrepreneurial muscles, the students came up with an innovative solution. They combined appliances from two different manufactures and developed what they now call the Green Energy Center stove. It provides a smokeless way to cook food and has the added bonus of generating electricity through the resulting thermal energy. The electricity can then be used by families to charge their cellphones and lamps, tasks that would otherwise require a lengthy commute and significant expense.
“You could see the delight in their faces that they have alternatives to accumulating firewood, cooking over an open flame and having to pay to charge their phones” said Nathan Elisha, a CityU student from Nigeria who traveled to Gabon to help pilot the project. “You can see how interested they are.”
After testing the project in Africa for the first time, the students saw a strong potential for success and decided to expand to other countries within the region. The trouble is, they lacked the funds to do so.
“We worked in Gabon and wanted to expand to Ethiopia,” said Sophia Haccou a CityU student from Australia. “We needed the funding to develop a prototype and pilot the project.”
Sophia had worked at Swinburne University in Melbourne writing research applications, so she utilized her prior skills to write a grant application on behalf of her Enactus team to the Mercer Island Rotary. Then, they were asked to present to the group.
“Nathan, Maheesa Maheen and I went in front of them and told the story of Anthony and our business model,” said Patricia Sibal a CityU student from the Philippines. “It’s important for us to show that we’re really committed to the impact of the project and not just doing it because it’s business.”
The team soon received the news they’d been waiting for: the Mercer Island Rotary granted them $3,500 for their project. It is the first external grant the CityU Enactus team has ever received.
“It was unreal!” Sophia said.
“We were all so excited and people kept asking for updates,” said Anastasya Hong a CityU student from Malaysia and current president of the Enactus group.
Learning outside the classroom
In addition to providing the financial support that they needed, the grant application and presentation process has been a major learning opportunity for the students involved.
“You don’t just come to school and learn theory – you can get experience,” Nathan said. “You hear terms in class and see them applicable because of Enactus.”
The work the students do in the organization reinforces what they learn through their coursework and vice versa.
“I come from a healthcare background and I don’t have much experience in business,” Patricia said. “Normally I have to look terms up, but a professor asked what a business model is and I didn’t have to look it up – I knew it from Enactus.”
In addition to business knowledge, the students are gaining professional skills as well.
“I told [our advisor] Kathy my fear of presenting in front of people, and she said the best way to get over it is to do it,” Patricia said. “The first time I presented I was shaking, and the second and third times it was more natural. Sophia and Anastasya were very supportive.”
The students see the diversity of their team as one of their greatest strengths. While those who contributed to the grant represent five different countries, the CityU Enactus team overall represents 25 countries and six continents.
“We all have different skills and complement each other,” said Sophia. “We can do it as a team.”
The team is eagerly looking forward to piloting the project in Ethiopia. They are planning to produce 50 stoves in the U.S. and ship them overseas, and produce 50 in the country to both empower the local communities through manufacturing and to learn about how to best scale the project. They are also partnering with a professor and a large nonprofit organization to distribute the stoves and monitor and evaluate their usage and effectiveness.
“It’s an opportunity to be involved in peoples’ lives and make a difference,” Sophia said.
“We get to touch people’s lives, not just in Africa, but here too,” Patricia said.
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