Solving Food Insecurity through Efficient Food Distribution …

a.k.a. one desperate Skype Call to Kenya at a time

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By Danielle Ginach, MBA Candidate

Published 3.14.13

Boston Regional Team Student Group

Our team came together last spring informally deciding that we wanted to compete in a case competition before graduating from business school. We are as varied in our backgrounds as in our reasons for wanting to participate – but shared a demonstrated commitment to issues of social or environmental sustainability coupled with a desire to test Presidio’s integrated approach to sustainable management in an intensive environment such as a case competition. And win.

To introduce our team, we are all full time C15s graduating this year. Ayaka Emoto comes from public relations background and spent the summer working with Fenix International in bringing energy solutions to the bottom of the pyramid. Bret Mueller comes from the solar industry, with experience in emerging markets while Morgan Matthew’s background spans real estate and entrepreneurship. My background is in strategic and financial communications and a present focus on impact investment (and, unfortunately for my teammates, no experience at all in emerging markets or food.) In short, we are all some combination of passionate and nerdy, which is more or less how we ended up on a team together. C13 Greg Kandakulam bravely joined our team a bit later, as we mapped out our experiences and identified a gap in financial analysis, and has been a critical part of our team since then.

Hult-Prize-LogoOver the summer, we enrolled for Presidio’s intensive case competitions course, which granted us a significant leg up in preparing our team presentation skills for Hult, since the case wouldn’t be released until early January, six weeks before the competition. With nothing to do but wait, practice our presentation skills, and place bets on the Hult case – Ed Quevedo, our advisor, mentor and spiritual guru, suggested that we start mapping out our strengths and “areas for improvement” in presenting – experimenting with different roles in pitching and storytelling. One of his suggestions was to see a play together so that we can delve into our ability to captivate an audience through a presentation.  So we did. We gave each other painfully honest feedback based on past presentations that we had seen each other deliver, and braved Union Square to see a play called 4000 Miles, which only had four actors but was still entertaining.

Finally, in January the case was released. One out of five of us was within 3000 miles of the US at the time. Helpful for getting cracking on finding a solution, I know. We eventually battled Balinese jet lag to start the anxiety-ridden process, realizing we had about a month to come up with an idea and business plan. Based on conversations with the HULT team at Net Impact, we knew we would expect a systematic problem, as they mentioned wanting to see a true “end to end” solution – but we had not anticipated quite how broad former President’s Clinton Challenge would be… the global food crisis. Solve food insecurity in urban slums, by 2018. You have less than six weeks. Go!

I’ll spare you the details, but we iterated, ideated, pivoted, backflipped and banged our heads against the wall for a month – employing every tool in our Presidio toolkit. IDEO’s HCD approach (post-it notes all over my house. No discernable solutions), scenario planning (bewilderment, fear of the future, and again, no discernable solution), business model canvas (same themes, post-it notes in different order, again, nada), and so on. We toyed with multiple ideas including my favorite, the bug box, sold through the Avon model that is generating so much publicity for Herbalife these days. Finally, through painstaking iteration and adjustment, we came up with our end-to-end solution - Link Foods – a mobile platform that links supply with demand through existing technologies – reducing spoilage and bringing down the cost of food. We realized that before we can add more food to the supply chain to meet burgeoning urban populations, that it might make more sense to clean up the existing distribution channels that waste anywhere from 30-50% of post-harvest food, with a particularly heavy toll on nutritious produce. The energy efficiency of food! The solution met our goals of being an end-to-end solution, and one that corrects a systematic imbalance. It requires no new infrastructure – leveraging existing distribution channels and technologies. Our costs are essentially salaries for local citizens, creating a meaningful contribution to local economies.

En route to Boston, we had to tell that story in 10 minutes and hope that our presentation is worth the trip. Easy, right? Having slept about 10 hours in the past week and spent my waking minutes in the weeds of our model and presentation, I appreciate its elegant simplicity, but the gaps in our business model seem equally weighty. With so little time to prepare and no time to get on the ground in Kenya, we had a lot of convincing to do in order to spend our summer in HULT’s incubator program for a chance to compete for the $1M grand prize.

Whatever the outcome of our weekend, our team is tremendously excited to participate in the conversation about this critical topic. We are energized by this opportunity to compete and collaborate with other teams, the CGI and Hult leaders. We are also encouraged by the support of the Presidio community. Every email and well wish has not gone unnoticed, so many thanks for the collective high five!

As always, the most valuable part of this experience (although you never want to admit it) has been the process thus far. I could never have anticipated the depth of our network in tracking down contacts on the ground in Kenya – and I am overwhelmed with gratitude of strangers once removed to take time out of their busy schedules at inopportune time-difference scheduled calls (11 hours between SF and Kenya meant a lot of late nights) to help us develop our idea, provide us feedback and share their experiences. Our team would like to take this opportunity to recognize them, and in the process, provide a bit of insight into our process.

• Peter Glenn of Fenix International served as a constant resource, readily available to provide feedback and put us in touch with his extensive network. He was tremendously helpful to our efforts!

• Sean Hewens of IDEO.org spared a beautiful Sunday afternoon to help us move from concept to business model at a critical juncture, as well as sharing his experience in Kenya and providing key introductions.

• Nick Handler from One Acre Fund connected with us several times, most recently responding instantaneously to a desperate request to run our assumptions by him when I was convinced our model needed to be redone entirely. (it didn’t, sorry Greg!)

• Linda Kwamboka from mFarm battled Skype and power outages on several occasions to help us understand the dynamic growth and challenges of scaling that the organization faced in launching its Kenyan operations.

• My former coworker and friend Jill Isenstadt of Samasource walked me through the challenges of compliance and transparency, as my eyes filled with fear the deeper in she got.

• Kaushik Vyas of Nostrum Power illustrated for us what the slums of Mumbai are like and what type of culturally sensitive social enterprises could be developed to solve food insecurity issues in India.

• Matt Flannery of Kiva.org gave us insight into what judges at business case competitions look for as well as what type of questions they ask during the Q&A session. Matt introduced us to Akash Trivedi – a former Kiva Fellow in Kenya – painted a picture of what food insecurity in Kibera looks like and how the problem most likely is about controlling the supply of food so that we make sure we introduce consistency within the food value chain.

• Maria Springer of Livelyhoods talked to us about her challenges in working with the slums of Nairobi and how she hires and incentivizes the local youth to work at her nonprofit venture.

• Kathleen Phillips of PRO*ACT talked to us about the food distribution system in the U.S. and how those challenges and opportunities may translate to the developing countries.

• Amanda Ravenhill, an adjunct faculty member and founder of the Biochar Association of the Bay Area, gave us a shared her international experiences working with clean cookstoves and doing education. She reminded us that behavior change is not an easy task and that our solution would need to be culturally sensitive.

• Wendy Weiden introduced us to the NYC Green Cart initiative, which inspired our initial idea of having food carts in urban slums.

• Kate Danaher of RSF Social Finance advised us on the challenges of ‘last mile distribution’ and provided valuable examples of existing business models we could learn from.

• Andy Fisher of the Community Food Security Coalition informed us of the agricultural challenges related to food insecurity.

• David Jay CEO of Journal Lab and former Hult judge provided us with guidance on what the judges might be looking for and how we could structure our story to win.

• Ron Marchini a farmer from the Central Valley walked us through the process of food production and distribution- he noted that even in the US the rising costs of food are largely due to middleman mark-ups.

• Ed Quevedo & Katharine Boshkoff & Dariush Rafinejad & Ryan Cabinte  = our faculty advisors who provided presentation feedback.

Danielle Ginach, MBA Candidate

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