Two University of Virginia Darden School of Business students helped bring home the $20,000 grand prize in the 2012 Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge for crafting a business plan aimed at improving lives in a remote South African province.
Bennett Graham (Class of 2012) and Layton Hill (Class of 2012) entered the competition on a whim, says Graham. But last month, their team — which included three University of Virginia students — won the challenge’s top prize after the students pitched their plan to Walmart executives in Bentonville, Arkansas.
More than 60 teams from colleges across the country entered the competition, which rewards ideas that are not only profitable but also help people.
“It’s just been fun to see the interest in it,” says Graham of their plan, which proposes a profitable way for entrepreneurs in the Limpopo Province in the northeast corner of South Africa to make and sell a filter that can purify water for local residents. “We won for our concept, but we want to turn it into a reality,” he adds.
The two students came up with the idea for their business plan as part of an assignment in Frank and Veronica Warnock and Saras D. Sarasvathy’s “Markets in Human Hope” class at Darden.
Graham, 27, of Nashville, Tennessee, and Hill, 27, of Edmond, Oklahoma, teamed with U.Va. students Molly Tyeryar, a Fourth Year economic student; Caroline Hackett, a Third Year engineering student; and Lydia Abebe, a Ph.D. candidate in civil and environmental engineering, to enter the Walmart competition.
The five team members were part of a larger group of U.Va. students and professors who have been working to establish clean water and sanitation systems in the Limpopo Province for the past three years. Residents of the semi-urban area, many of whom have water piped to their homes, must often deal with turbid water that can be contaminated with bacteria.
“We’re not solving the issue of access to water but of access to clean water,” says Graham. “The biggest thing we’re addressing is health concerns.”
The two Darden students helped formulate a strategy that would allow the profitable — and thus sustainable — production of clay filters that can be cheaply made using material available in the province. The plan calls for building small factories in the province, which would be staffed primarily by local women who are potters.
The clay filters, which can be produced for as little as $3 each, including labor, would be distributed via retail stores. Water is poured into the top of the pot-shaped filters, and the filters then use air pockets and an infused silver compound to purify the water.
“We sort of crystallized things for the team and formalized the thoughts we had on the project,” says Hill. “We wanted to get the product to people who want it and realize its value.”
“This business model will promote good and generate a profit level of sustainability,” says Graham. He reports that the $20,000 prize will be invested into the project.
“We have a pretty awesome product,” Graham remarks. “And it’s really been a great exercise in entrepreneurship to explore what it’s like to start up a company and work with a lot of stakeholders.”
“It’s proof you can do good while doing well,” confirms Hill.
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