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Acara Challenge 2010: Eight Social Business Ideas

by Sarabjeet Singh

Fourteen universities. One semester of field visits, market research and business planning. Twenty venture ideas. Several hours of web presentations. Interaction with sector experts, VCs, government executives, industry leaders and social entrepreneurs. And we have finally boiled down to 8 teams. From clean water delivery near Vellore to chromium recovery in the tanneries of Tamil Nadu to clean-gas cooked food tiffin services in Delhi, the finalist teams of the Acara Challenge 2010 have some great ideas to change the world.

I feel excited to introduce the ideas of the eight final teams here:


  • BioServe: Indoor smoke from solid fuels kills millions in Indians in rural areas every year. Inspired by the benefits of using BioGas in generating power, Team BioServe from IIT Roorkee and University of Minnesota, plans to revive all non-functional biogas plants in India. Starting from village Charba in Uttarakhand, they plan to expand across India, refurbishing old plants and providing repair and maintenance services to village families through trained technicians. Clean burning gas from the plants will bring safer cooking practices. The high-quality fertilizer, generated as a by-product, will be used for increasing crop yield. The team has already spoken to government authorities, who have promised subsidies for technician training and service maintenance.

  • Food For Thought: Who wouldn't feel more satisfied after a meal, if s/he is told that clean gas was used for cooking the meal? Meet the Green Tiffing Company, founded by guys from TERI University and Yale. The team plans to use cow-dung to run a biogas plant which generates clean gas for cooking. This food is available for thousands of young professionals based in Delhi. Yes, these guys are our Delhi Dabbawalas. Team 'Food for Thought' wants to provide consistently hygienic food, reliable service delivery and variety, all at a competitive price. They care a lot about their venture's economic, social and ecological impact and are planning to provide training services (in cooking) to the poor.

  • JAL: This team from UIC and VIT aims to provide economical and high-quality drinking water using a low-pressure solar distillation technology and hassle-free distribution system. Research shows that 1 in 8 people worldwide do not have access to clean water. The team's pilot target community is the Ranipet area of Tamil Nadu state in South India. Later, they plan to spread across the state. Compared to polluted ground water in the open water bodies, impure underground water from the government taps and unaffordable (and often impure) water from the current water distributors, JAL plans to capture the market by providing clean water at affordable prices.

  • Mango Solar: Think of a hybrid cook stove which capitalizes on solar radiation (during the day when sun is there) and later can be used as a biomass stove (on cloudy days and at night!). Team 'Mango Solar' has created an environmentally friendly and affordable product with free repair and maintenance services. Using education and awareness, village representatives, affordable pricing and village-level demos and events, this team fromIIT Delhi and Duke University will bring clean cooking practices in rural areas.

  • my Rain: This is one solution to solve the problems of poverty, malnutrition, irrigation and water table depletion in the Charba village of Uttarakhand in India! It is called drip irrigation. As compared to groundwater recharge, which can only be done during monsoons, and flood irrigation, which is known for water wastage and ineffective delivery, drip irrigation is gravity fed and delivers directly to the root system. The crop yield increase is as high as 140% for beans, 57% for wheat, 46% for potato and 33% for sugarcane. This technology ensures lower strain on the water table and less money spent on irrigation. Team 'my Rain' from IIT Roorkee and University of Minnesota, plans to partner with IDEI (International Development Enterprises, India) for manufacturing and distribution and wants to handle Sales and Marketing by themselves. Their expansion plans are to spread to 600,000 villages like Charba in India.

  • Suryopahar: This team from K.J.SIMSR in Mumbai aims to provide clean cooking solution to villages, schools and hostels around Mumbai. Opinion leaders will be brought in to educate communities about the benefits of solar cooking; villagers will be given employment by providing jobs to assemble cookers; and banks/financial institutions will brought in to provide small loans to prospective consumers. Though the plan is feasible, the team could face heavy competition as the technology can be easily replicated. However, Suryopahar plans to gain an edge by providing cost savings for customers, health and environmental benefits, livelihood generation and low maintenance costs.

  • rEVOLVE Sanitation: This team plans to provide a sustainable solution to water sanitation and water scarcity through decentralized waste facilities, using Rotating Biological Contractors. As students from ASU and TERI University, the team wants to target Grey Water users (golf courses, gardens, resorts and industrial users), farmers and horticulturists as their customers. The aim is to address health and sanitation problems that affect quality of life.
  • VellHart Solutions: The tannery industry in India is worth $4 billion and employs over 80,000 people. Effluent discharge from tanneries in the Vellore district of Tamil Nadu has caused severe damage to health and daily lives of people and agricultural activities. Water scarcity, disposal of contaminated hides and chromium contamination, all present an interesting business opportunity. Using a tried and tested chromium recovery and reuse mechanism, this team from VIT and U of Hartford plans to target about 120 tanneries in the Vellore region that do not have a chrome recovery system. The incentive for the tanneries is cost savings, with little or no risk and the benefit of moving to an environmentally friendly operation mode.

With all these thought-provoking ideas emerging from university students, who want to change the world, I feel excited about being part of Acara and helping build this community of changemakers. For all of you who want to follow these teams launch their businesses, check the Acara Institute website for updates. Stay tuned!


This post originally appeared on Next Billion.

Images via the Acara Institute.


Editor's Note: The Acara Institute has announced the winners of the 2010 Acara Challenge: University of Illinois-Chicago/Vellore Institute of Technology JAL Water for Life and India Institute of Technology-Roorkee/University of Minnesota Bioserv are the winning teams. An Honorable Mention was awarded to the University of Hartford/Vellore Institute of Technology VellHart Solutions.

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