Grasshopper by Ferguson
© James Ferguson

How do you win a social entrepreneurship competition? What does it take and what gives you the edge?

A team of five MBA students from Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, Canada recently won the Hult Prize, the social entrepreneurship contest, and $1m towards their venture to help solve food insecurity in urban slums. It was their MBA knowhow, they say, that helped them hone their problem-solving skills and craft their business plan in a way that drew the attention of the judges.

What is the problem?

More than 2bn people worldwide eat insects as a source of calcium, iron and protein but it is difficult to obtain a steady supply because the insects are hand-harvested and seasonal.

What was the winning idea?

The team, Aspire Food Group, plan to make so-called micro-livestock more accessible by producing insect growing kits so that people can harvest insects all year round. They will use the prize money to deliver the kits worldwide.

How did the business school help?

The MBA programme was key in developing analytical and creative problem-solving skills, they say.

As part of their research, the team of Mohammed Ashour, Gabriel Mott, Jesse Pearlstein, Shobhita Soor and Zev Thompson visited slums in Ghana, Mexico, Kenya and Thailand to test their business plan. The travel would not have been possible without money raised by the business school teachers and alumni.

Desautels’ teaching faculty and students gave advice on the team’s presentation skills and feedback on their pitch. McGill has a wide diversity of students allowing the team to get a feel for a variety of global markets.

For the final, Dror Etzion, professor in strategy and organisation, advised the students to give the judges packaged products to evaluate – one of which was masala-flavoured crisps made with crickets. Mr Ashour believes that having samples to hand helped them win.

What happens next?‎

The team will go to Mexico to collect grasshoppers and to start manufacturing the insect units. The aim is to create a colony to supply eggs to farmers so that they and the team can farm the insects. Aspire will then sell the insects to a distributor who will sell them on in the slums. They have an order from a distribution partner for 10 tons of grasshoppers to be delivered by March 2014.

The students will now study their MBA part-time and work on their venture full-time.

What about the runners-up?

It is not all bad news. Reel Gardening, from the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business in South Africa, came up with the idea of producing paper strips containing seeds so that people can grow vegetables, herbs and flowers easily and cheaply.

Edge Growth, an impact investing company, has taken a share in Reel Gardening to help with the growth strategy, scale and key networks or partners. Reel Gardening is also developing planting bags that can be hung up – for those without access to land.

Origin, a team from Esade Business School, has devised a scheme to aggregate demand from small retailers for fresh vegetables in the Mumbai slums, allowing the team to source vegetables at lower prices from distributors. The network should allow retailers to sell these vegetables at 20 per cent below previous retail prices. Part of the business plan is to promote financial inclusion by partnering with the government of India’s unique identification programme. Signing up for this unique ID allows the customers of retailers on the Origin network to access bank accounts and government welfare payments that previously were more difficult or impossible to obtain.

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