With plan to fight hunger in India, UCLA students vie for $1 million prize

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India has a rich history and culture, and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It also is plagued by a stark economic divide among its citizens — an estimated 93 million live in slums and many don't know where their next meal will come from.

A group of UCLA freshmen is working to help fight the hunger epidemic with a concept they call FoodConnect. Their plan involves purchasing grains in bulk from India's marketplaces, packaging them into family-size portions along with other staples, and selling the bundles to those in need without any markup in price.
 
First-year Bruins Aditya Aggarwal, Anushka Bhatia, Varadh Jain, Sajal Khanter and Sagar Patel, all born and raised in India, are in contention for the Hult Prize, which provides $1 million in seed funding for a student project aimed at solving the global food crisis.
 
The UCLA undergrads formed one of more than 2,000 teams from all over the world that entered the competition. Just 250 teams were selected to participate in the five regional finals, held in March in San Francisco — where the UCLA team competed — as well as Dubai, London, Boston, and Shanghai, and the each regional winner advanced to the final round.
 
Although the Bruins didn't win their region, they have further developed their proposal with support from Bhagwan Chowdhry, a professor of finance in the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and other advisors, and are still in the running for the grand prize. A video describing their project is one of 77 wild-card entries on the Hult Prize Facebook page; the 10 projects that earn the most votes will be considered for the last position among the six finalists, and the UCLA team was running second as of April 24. Voting ends May 12 and the winner will be announced May 20.
 
The UCLA students were as young as 17 years old and didn't have a faculty advisor or mentor when they entered the contest, but they're up against a field that also includes upperclassmen and graduate and doctoral students. "To be so much younger and to be able to think on the same level as them was incredible," Jain said.
 
Regardless of the contest’s outcome, the team is planning to meet in India this summer to try to put its idea in motion. "We know we can make a change, so we’re definitely going to try," Jain said. "To make a change, you need to understand the local behavior. You can’t just be a foreign entity just trying to make a change. You need to know the reality."

A typical FoodConnect package might include 600 grams of rice, 1 kilogram of whole wheat flour, 600 grams of lentils, 60 grams of ionized salt and 60 grams of oil, all bundled in a woven sack, and sell for less than $1, Jain said. Items will be selected based in part on the ingredients' shelf life and their potential to be used for multiple recipes, and packages will be customized based on regional tastes.

FoodConnect would keep prices low — and potentially generate profits — by selling advertising on the packaging.
 
In addition, each container will include information that invites customers to earn small amounts of money by responding to phone surveys. (Despite their low income levels, a high percentage of the target customers have cell phones, according to the team.) Cash rewards will be direct-deposited into new savings accounts, which the team hopes will encourage financial literacy.
 
"Our strategy will bring the financial world to the slum dwellers, something they have been deprived of so far," Khanter said.

Eventually, the team would like to franchise its model throughout the world and reach as many people as possible.

FoodConnect is not Jain and Khanter’s first foray into the food packaging business. As seniors at an international school in Bangalore they, along with their classmates, started a company that packaged and sold wheat chips as a healthy and affordable alternative to potato chips. The venture sold 3,500 packages of wheat chips within six months, expanded sales efforts to community and sporting events, and eventually negotiated an order of 44,000 packages with one of India’s leading pharmaceutical companies.

At the company’s height it employed 12 to 15 women to help with production and packaging, paying them double their previous monthly incomes, even though they worked a mere four to eight hours per month for the students' venture. "We paid them an hourly wage that was unmatched," Khanter said. "Unintentionally, we developed a social enterprise."
 
Jain and Khanter folded the company once they graduated from high school, but they had their first taste of successful entrepreneurship — one they hope to replicate with FoodConnect.
 
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