Business students learn about opportunities in developing markets while designing products for impoverished Indian communities.

By:    Date: 01-23-2017

Article by Katie Bedrich

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In Summer 2015, University of Alabama students studying science and business spent three weeks in some of India’s poorest communities, learned about challenges residents face and developed products to meet needs. The group of 13 students and a faculty member interviewed people in nine areas, including large cities, urban slums and rural villages, to research issues such as polluted drinking water, unemployment and poor food preservation. Students then designed four low-cost product models that could be marketed in Indian communities to improve residents’ quality of life.

“Developing worlds have so much potential,” says Joey Weed, a junior majoring in math and economics who, along with two other students, came up with the idea for the trip. He says the experience was about using a business mindset to help real people with real challenges and make an impact on lives and consumer markets.

“Getting to go into people’s homes and talk to them about their problems is something you don’t get to do on a lot of study-abroad trips,” Weed says. “It was a unique experience.”

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Many villagers must collect water from a government water pipe that operates only a few hours a day. ABOVE: Students with residents of Barara, a small village in northern India.

The trip was part of UA’s STEM Path to the MBA program, in which undergraduates majoring in science, technology, engineering and math combine their technical skills with business innovations during five-week projects each semester and earn an MBA in business in one additional year. Students came to Dr. Robert Morgan, executive director of Innovative Initiatives in the Culverhouse College of Commerce and director of the STEM Path to the MBA program, with the idea for the India trip in May 2014.

Morgan says IBA 450/550 Global Business, the course that encompassed the trip, is a new, global extension of the STEM program. Students were inspired to lobby for the course after reading “Reverse Innovation” for a summer common book experience and inviting one of its authors, Vijay Govindarajan, to speak on campus. “Reverse Innovation” tells stories of corporations unlocking opportunities within markets far from their traditional customer base, then adapting the innovations and bringing them back to developed markets.

“[The course] is a combination of teaching students about reverse innovation, but also teaching them about developing business in emerging markets,” Morgan says.

The products created through reverse innovation must match consumer needs and be affordable for people living in some of the poorest parts of the world. In Chennai, one of the cities students visited, for example, more than 1 million people live on less than $1.25 each per day, Morgan says.

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Fishermen have no way to preserve fish before selling them in markets hours after they’re caught.

“The service part of this was different than other trips I’ve been on,” says Rachel Ramey, a junior majoring in civil engineering and a co-founder of the IBA 550/450 course. “We’re not going in and building houses or picking up trash, but as STEM majors we can provide long-term solutions, like maybe providing clean water for an entire community.”

Students worked in teams to create and innovate products and services in the sectors of health, household and agricultural products and technology. After returning to the United States, teams began pitching business plans to corporations and potential investors and creating prototypes.

One group of UA students designed a water filter for villages. Students observed that in some communities, families get water for bathing and washing clothes from wells, but this water is not safe to drink.

Families collect water for drinking and cooking from a government-regulated pipeline that operates only a few hours each day, forcing them to collect many bucketfuls at a time. This water is treated at a central plant, but is contaminated in  pipes and water towers.

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Cow urine is a valuable commodity for use as an organic fertilizer, but collection is difficult. [UA student Tate Thomas pictured]

Students designed a filtration device residents could easily use with government pipelines and well water to remove bacteria and other contaminants.

Sheela Kailasam, a junior majoring in math and finance, worked in a group that focused on the transportation of fresh fish, a challenge faced by many people in Indian fishing villages.

“We learned that the way they store produce and fish can be inefficient and unsanitary,” Kailasam says. Fishermen rub the fish in sand to deter flies, put the fish in metal containers and then sell them at markets hours later, she says. With no way to effectively clean the fish or protect it from spoiling in the heat, food poisoning is common and the market value of the fish is therefore low. A prevalent belief that placing fish over ice means the meat is low quality is one hindrance to designing safe storage systems, Kailasam says.

“We are trying to create or use a fabric that already exists that has insulating properties and protects against bacteria and spoilage,” she continues. With guidance from Tuscaloosa-based Phifer Inc., Kailasam and her team worked to develop a prototype for the fish-bag fabric.

Another problem students observed involved the collection of cow urine for use as an organic fertilizer. The product is a valuable commodity in India, but is difficult to collect. Students designed a device that could be strapped onto an animal or used as a catheter to collect urine to be sold as fertilizer.

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Student Rachel Ramey talks with a woman who works for a local entrepreneur, stuffing facial tissues boxes that will be distributed to hotels.

A fourth group worked to connect unemployed people in rural communities to job opportunities in urban areas. Students designed a mobile phone app that functions like a dating website, matching people who seek part-time labor with employers searching for workers, using location, desired work and other factors to make effective connections.
Each of the product-design teams worked extensively with locals to develop their product ideas. Students say this is an important process because they had to understand the communities’ ways of life and cultures to come up with sustainable solutions residents would embrace.

“Indian people are already very innovative because they have to work with limited resources,” Weed says. “It was really cool to learn how Indian people think and push myself out of my comfort zone to understand a different mindset. These are skills that are becoming more valuable as we become a more global society.”

Kailasam says she wanted to apply concepts she learned in the classroom about reverse innovation to what she already knew about Indian culture. “My parents are of Indian origin, so it was really cool for me personally to be able to connect those two things and learn about developing economies in the process,” she says.

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UA students Evan Rogers and Tate Thomas speak with a farmer.

Students began preparing for the trip in Spring 2014. They met regularly on and off campus, studying Indian politics, religion, culture and business and participating in events and activities that helped them learn about the country’s traditions. They made several trips to Birmingham, Ala., about an hour’s drive from the UA campus, to visit Indian businesses and restaurants, see Indian art and observe dance and music at the Holi Festival, hosted by the Birmingham Museum of Art.

“We could feel a connection to the country already from thousands of miles away, just in the planning stages,” Weed says.

Sanjay Singh, president of the Rotary Club of Downtown Birmingham and leader of the Indian Cultural Society at the Birmingham Museum of Art, helped familiarize the group with Indian art, food, language and other cultural aspects of the country.

“India changes everybody – for good or bad,” Singh says. “No other country has such a diversity of language, food, people, chaos, tranquility and contrast all at once. Those who can channel it will excel in future endeavors, for it readies them for the ever-changing world around them.”

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UA student Sheela Kailasam visits with a woman in a Chennai slum.

Singh says the type of experiential learning students did is the future of education. “Going to India, spending time in the slums and countryside, understanding the needs of those marginalized by society and then trying to create products and services for them will have a long-lasting impact,” he says.

Morgan and the group continue to meet regularly. They say their vision is to travel to India each summer, bringing new students to design additional products and returning students to introduce their products. Ramey says she’s using the water filter for her STEM senior project, in which students work with companies such as P&G, ADTRAN and DuPont to potentially bring a product to market.

Jeff Jirak, global business director for the Chemours division of DuPont and a member of the STEM Path to MBA Industry Advisory Board, coordinated a student visit to the DuPont Innovation Center in Hyderabad, India. “I am excited to help sponsor several of the students on one of the projects and help guide them as they develop prototypes and investigate the feasibility of their innovative ideas,” Jirak says.

Weed says the lessons he learned through service in India will relate to courses he takes in the future and his career. “Just the ability to have a conversation with someone from a completely different background and listen effectively is so important,” he says. “To dive deep into hopes, dreams, wants and fears is critical when you’re trying to develop a product or run a business.”

IBA 450/ 550 Global Business is offered to students in the STEM program. To learn more about the course and how to apply, contact Dr. Robert Morgan at rmorgan@cba.ua.edu or 205-348-9557.