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June 01, 2011

Students Use Competition To Impact Villages in Sierra Leone, India

By Abby Houck

Two Carnegie Mellon student teams working to improve the quality of life for rural communities in Sierra Leone and India successfully pitched their ideas to the Dell Social Innovation Competition, which received more than 1,400 entries from college students in 85 countries.

Project Yele

Project Yele, led by engineering and public policy doctoral student Paul van der Boor and sophomore economics and statistics major Tori Baggio, was one of five project teams that competed in the final round of the competition for $100,000 in seed funding.

Van der Boor and Baggio’s fellow Project Yele leaders hail from Delft University in The Netherlands and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Van der Boor and three friends founded Project Yele in 2007 as undergraduate students at Delft University.

“We teamed up with the Lion Heart Foundation, a Dutch NGO, that needed a sustainability plan for its work in Yele, Sierra Leone,” van der Boor said. “They needed some solutions that were more technical, and we could provide that with our engineering backgrounds.”

One of their goals was to refurbish a hydropower plant, which is scheduled for completion this summer.

Last year, Project Yele was a semifinalist in the competition and used that experience to improve this year’s Dell Social Innovation Competition entry, which focused on opening a community bazaar that utilizes the power plant and provides space for 16 shop owners who will receive entrepreneurial coaching. Van der Boor said they hope to have the bazaar 100 percent owned by the community in two years.

“The bazaar also will include places for cooling vaccines and perishable foods,” Baggio said. “We’ve planned
an area to buy and charge LED lights, access clean drinking water and log on to the Internet.”

Baggio joined the team after meeting van der Boor at a Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) meeting in January. SIFE hosted a benefit concert for the project during Spring Carnival, which raised $600.

Baggio’s involvement with Project Yele has provided her a broader view of her education.

“When you are sitting at a table in the UC deciding how people are going to use electricity for the first time, you realize that you really can make a difference,” Baggio said.

Project H2U

Project H2U, led by senior civil engineering majors Whitney Ladzick and Amanda Low, was among 100 semi-finalists in the Dell Social Innovation Competition. Their proposal began as a final project for Privilege, Responsibility and Community, an elective course taught by Joanna Dickert, coordinator of Student Affairs.

“I introduced the competition to my class after attending an English Department symposium about incorporating authentic projects into the curriculum,” Dickert said.

The goal of Project H2U is to provide rural Indian villages with clean drinking water and employment opportunities. Ladzick and Low proposed installation of peristaltic pumps onto bicycles so power from pedaling would pump water through filters.

“I did not require my students to enter the competition,” Dickert said. “In the case with Whitney and Amanda’s team, I strongly encouraged them to enter because they had put a lot of thought and time into the proposal and made sure it was culturally specific to the community they were looking to serve.”

As civil engineering majors, Ladzick and Low already had an interest in green practices and water resources.

“I was in India this past summer, and I noticed there were a lot of bicycles being used in rural areas and cities. It’s a technology that is already there,” Low said.

Ladzick and Low received notification that Project H2U had been named a semifinalist over spring break and estimate they invested nearly 40 hours over three weeks to create a venture plan and five-minute pitch video for the next round of the competition.

“Once we became semifinalists, we were paired with a mentor from Dell named Tracy Watson,” Ladzik said. “Her advice helped us to develop a plan that was financially sustainable.”

Although Project H2U was not selected for the final round, the seniors agree the experience helped them synthesize lessons they learned inside the classroom and through involvement in Greek Life, study abroad and social justice organizations.

“I’m putting all these things that I worked so hard to learn to use for something that is real and meaningful,” Ladzick said.