As part of the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, dozens of student-led teams are innovating solutions to critical quality-of-life barriers around the world. In this series, we learn more about individual teams' efforts to develop solutions that could earn them implementation awards of up to $10,000 at the IDEAS Global Challenge awards ceremony on May 3.
Essmart is working to bridge knowledge, distribution and service gaps by making vital technologies available to underserved communities in developing countries. Realizing that products that can substantially improve day-to-day life often fail to achieve scaled impact, the team sees an opportunity to develop distribution networks in rural communities. The team was founded by Diana Jue '09, MCP '12 and Jackie Stenson. Other teammates include Junior Aubrey Colter, Lisa Lim and Prashanth Venkataramana. Here, Jue spoke about how she and her team became interested in international development and realized that they could fill a need through Essmart. During January, Jue traveled to India to conduct research and begin operations through support from the MIT Public Service Center, International Development Initiative and The Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship.
Q. Why did your team choose to address the issue of distribution in developing countries?
A. Jackie Stenson — the co-founder of Essmart along with me — and I were both pretty involved in D-Lab as undergraduates. Jackie was a Harvard undergrad who decided to take classes at MIT, including D-Lab classes because she was really interested in development. I took D-Lab as an undergraduate as well, and we saw how there are all these technologies being made, but they weren't being made available in communities at scale and over a long period of time.
I never studied engineering at MIT. I thought I wanted to do mechanical engineering, but I came here and realized that there are much bigger problems than just developing a single product. I declared urban planning to study social and political issues, and I added economics to study how economies grow. When I took D-Lab, I was encouraged because I saw how people are trying to do things for those at the bottom of the pyramid, but I was also discouraged because a lot of people were inventing great things that weren't going anywhere or were just being implemented over a short term.
This got me wondering — after you're a student, how are you going take a project and make it into something that's real and available for communities in the long term? I don't really have a business background, so I spent about two years both in and out of school studying how social enterprises are currently doing it in India. To see how people are actually trying to make their products and services available and sustainable was fascinating.
Jackie went to Africa for two years and worked in 11 different countries for NGOs and small social enterprises that focus on technology and development. After her two years in Africa, Jackie attended the University of Cambridge to get her master's and study rural distribution in Africa. Parallel to that, I've been studying about the same topic in India.
We came back here in the fall, met each other in October and got started. Both of us were studying technology dissemination, we both decided that we wanted to do something about it at the same time and we both happened to be in Boston to do it.
Q. How are you working to build your distribution networks?
A. We take a catalog of these technologies, see what's available locally and select the products we consider to be of a higher quality. In the future, we hope to be a channel for technologies that come out of universities, like D-Lab at MIT. We want to be that channel for academic institutions to get what's going on in the labs out into communities. We want to be their channel for prototyping and eventually their ultimate distribution into rural shops in India — there are over 10 million of them.
We'll aggregate all of the technologies into a separate paper catalog and give this catalog to the shops. The shops' customers can go through the catalogs and place orders for what they want. Rural shop owners purchase the products from us and then sell them to their customers. Through the catalog, we help people become more aware of the existence of these technologies.
Filling the distribution gap is how we'll actually move the products. We'll have a warehouse/showroom/after-sales service center in the nearest cities to these villages. Store owners in the rural areas have the opportunity to pick up their goods at the nearest city or can have their goods delivered to them to the nearest mile.
Sometimes shop owners are hesitant to purchase items because they worry about being responsible for low-quality products that break. After I went to India in January, I realized that this after-sales service gap is really important. As a social enterprise, we don't want to just be selling a bunch of "stuff" to rural households. We don't want to be taking money like that, especially if the products just break in six months to a year. We want to provide after-sales service to guarantee that this doesn't happen. We're going to work with an NGO to hire and train rural youth as technicians for different kinds of products. We've been in talks with this NGO, and we're really excited to be working with them.
Q. If you win the award, what will your plans for next year be?
A. After graduation, I plan on moving to India to help with all of the operations and everything else on the ground. I'll be working with one of our teammates, who is already there, and a few people that we met over January to handle the sales. We'll be opening our first showroom/service center/warehouse in Pollachi, which is a little south of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. We'll be hiring people for sales and for working with suppliers.
We're planning on rolling out in the summer. It's a bit scary, but that's our plan. In the meantime we're in some competitions, including the IDEAS Global Challenge. As we go through the process of these competitions, we want to get a lot of feedback on our model because we want it to be as good as it can be before we get there. We hope to talk to as many people as possible about what can be done to improve it, and we look forward to the feedback from the judges because they might have suggestions to help us think about something differently.