Fighting poverty with mushrooms, green things & social enterprise

Pitching Fargreen, a Vietnam-based business aimed at helping smallholder farmers, at the UW’s global social enterprise contest.

Most people might not think growing mushrooms could make the world a better place.

Most might not see natural disasters like the Philippine’s catastrophic Typhoon Haiyan (aka Yolanda) as a business opportunity.

But then, most people aren’t creative entrepreneurs looking for innovative and profitable ways to fight poverty and human suffering.

“Mushrooms were big this year, for some reason, as was disaster relief,” said Kirsten Aoyama, director of the University of Washington’s Global Business Center.

Every year, the UW Foster School of Business holds an international ‘social enterprise’ competition at which college students from around the world present business solutions aimed at reducing global poverty and inequity. It’s perhaps not the biggest such contest, now that other universities hold similar do-gooder business challenges.

But it’s definitely one of the oldest, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, and seems to have a talent for recognizing those likely to make good on what may sound to some, like a far-fetched or financially infeasible business idea. Many of the winners, and often some of the losers,  in this annual event called the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition (GSEC), go on to gain worldwide recognition for their do-gooder business acumen.

Ever hear of the Wello, that wheelbarrow water transport system gaining popularity in poor communities? I first learned about Wello at GSEC a few years ago. How about Sanergy, a project that also competed here in Seattle years ago?  The Financial Times is among many now crediting these social entrepreneurs for helping Kenya’s slums turn waste (i.e., human poop) into gold.

This year’s $12,500 grand prize winner for the competition, funded by Microsoft and the Seattle International Foundation, was Fargreen, a social enterprise based in Vietnam and launched by students at the Colorado State University.

“Vietnam is one of the world’s leading rice producers,” said Trang Tran, CEO and founder of Fargreen. Tran said her country also produces a lot of waste, some 20 million tons of rice straw for every 40 million tons of rice, which is usually just burned by farmers causing seasonal air pollution that rivals China’s bad air.

To reduce the environmental downside of rice production and to also help Vietnamese farmers better compete against Chinese food imports, Tran and her colleagues have launched a business that recycles rice straw for use as a basic agricultural substrate to grow mushrooms. Mushrooms are popular in Vietnam, a $90 million annual market, but most consumers now get them as Chinese imports.

Fargreen was launched to accomplish several social goods simultaneously: Reduce the environmental harms of rice production; exploit the potential financial benefit of a waste product and empower smallholder farmers by promoting a new, valuable crop.

“It’s a reinforcing business loop for the rice farmers,” said Tran at the final gathering, an awards dinner for GSEC Thursday evening at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown Seattle. “Help Vietnam go far by going green.”

Nice sound bite. As she spoke last night, Tran didn’t yet know she and her colleagues would be the grand prize winners. The teams were all still pitching hard and up until the last minute, as you’d expect of an entrepreneur. Besides, they all need more money than these prizes offer them. It is the publicity and the recognition they need, and get from this event, as much as the prize money that’s valued.

Another team of competitors, called Agro Youth Achievers from Uganda, were focused on helping farmers in East Africa diversify by making mushrooms a staple crop. What’s the deal with mushrooms this year? Ivan Nuwagaba, also from Uganda, was also about recycling waste and being a greener business. His proposal, called Green World Enterprise, was focused on creating cookstove briquettes from garbage.

Ali Raza, of PAK-Energy in Pakistan, pitched his proposal to start a business of recyling his country’s ubiquitous cattle dung (which many Pakistanis now burn for energy and cooking, also creating dangerous air pollution) for use to produce biogas for energy and also fertilizer.

“We turn bullshit into gold,” Raza said to much laughter. Best sound bite! Made the final round, but still didn’t win.

There were many other projects not focused on mushrooms or green things, of course. One team from the UW, Days for Girls Bridges, was focused on improving the ability of girls and women in poor communities to deal with menstruation by creating inexpensive feminine hygiene kits. A team from the University of Hong Kong had a business solution for Chinese AIDS orphans or others living in “AIDS villages” in China.

There were lots of competitors from Bangladesh, for some reason, including one of the prize-winners, Bhitti – a company created to make cheaper bricks for homes – and LifeSaver, a company trying to find business solutions to the deplorable working conditions experienced by those who make many of our clothes in the Bangladesh garment industry. Bhitti won the second place prize, for $10,000, sponsored by the UW Global Business Center.

Ayuda Food Aid's Joben Odulio shows a judge their disaster food.
Ayuda Food Aid’s Joben Odulio shows a judge their disaster food.

Among the big winners this year was Ayuda Food Aid, a project presented by three young Filipinas in matching dresses. The point of Ayuda, explained Feona Ila Noel Dizon Castro, is to better prepare the Philippines for immediate food relief after disasters like Typhoon Haiyan. The Philippines, Castro noted, regularly experiences such disastrous storms and the typical food aid response is slow.

“When people cannot get food immediately, they turn to looting,” Castro said. “In Typhoon Haiyan, food aid didn’t reach many people for days.”

Ayuda was launched to set up distributed business where high-risk communities can produce and store energy bars (that last a year in their packages) for use in emergencies. It may not sound like the most innovative idea, but the judges were apparently impressed with their business model and approach. Ayuda won the $10,000 global health prize and also the $2,500 social impact award from Seattle and University Rotary.

“They just stood out,” said Judith Wasserheit, vice chair of the UW global health department, who awarded the prize. Wasserheit noted that the benefits of the GSEC competition go well beyond the monetary prizes or the recognition all get from attending the event.

A survey of past participants found a third went on to successfully launch their projects (whether they won or not) and most remain in contact with their fellow competitors, mentors and host families. A social enterprise community is being created through this context, Wasserheit said. One past participant, she added, even ended up meeting her husband at GSEC.

“Talk about having a sustainable, major impact and your double bottom line!” Wasserheit said.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.