A Professor and His Students' Journey to Transform a Village

A dedicated professor and his passionate students are helping a rural village in Brazil in a whole new way: they started a business.

January 06, 2015

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, senior engineering students at Oral Roberts University (ORU) are busy hammering large sheets of metal together to build a giant cook stove. On the floor next to them sits a pile of cashew fruits imported from Brazil. Their challenge is to create a low-cost device that can roast the cashews safely while extracting the most amount of oil possible.

If the students are successful, they just might transform the economy of an entire village in Brazil.

We first heard about this unusual assignment from Kevin Schneider, a professor of International Business at ORU and a regular +Acumen course taker. Kevin took Design Kit: The Course for Human-Centered Design last spring and has since been a big proponent of human-centered design on his campus. After focusing his graduate dissertation on bottom-of-the-Pyramid (BOP) business strategies, he is now teaching his students to use multi-disciplinary approaches, such as human-centered design, to take on problems of poverty. “That’s what they want,” he told us. “I find that this generation of young people have a desire to not only have great careers, but they also have this desire to do something meaningful with their lives.”


Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S.

The project all started when Kevin’s colleague, Bruno Teles, came to him with a challenge. Bruno wanted to find a way he could help improve the quality of life in Carrilho, a remote village near Aracaju on the eastern coast of Brazil. Bruno grew up in Aracaju, passing by this underresourced community often while on hikes through the surrounding country. He had witnessed the poor living conditions of the villagers and wanted to see if his business and law background could be of use in helping to improve their situation.

Kevin had been training his students to build solutions that are not only human-centered but also financially sustainable. He saw this as an opportunity to take his teaching from the classroom to the real world.

Kevin knew from his experience with +Acumen courses and beyond that he and the students could not assume what the right problems were to solve. They needed to start from understanding the world from the villagers’ perspective. So, the professors organized a student trip to Brazil.


Carrilho, Sergipe, Brazil

They took an interdisciplinary team of engineering, nursing, social work, business and pre-med students. The entire trip was focused on listening to conduct an initial needs assessment. But when they arrived, no one was willing to speak with them.

The lack of trust was obvious. Most of the villagers had never met a foreigner before let alone Americans. Also, they learned a few of the households participated in research studies in the past and were not eager to be interviewed again. Kevin and his students had to first build trust with the village. So, the students spent their first few days playing soccer with the local kids, while Bruno spoke with the community leaders he had met before while on his hikes. Slowly, the community warmed up to the team. “By the end of it, people were coming up to us and asking, “Why haven’t you come by my house to ask me any questions yet?“” Kevin recalled.


Their efforts paid off. Using guidance from Grameen Foundation’s Progress out of Poverty Index, the team discovered that many in the villages live on $5 or less per day. They also found the community lacked basic access to things like clean water, sanitation, and health care. But they had easy access to things like alcohol and drugs – for a community of 1,000 people, there are six bars.

Among many findings, what caught their attention was the economic driver of the community - 600 people out of a total population of 1,000 made their living from processing cashews. In order to do this, villagers first transport the cashew fruits to their homes and then break off the nuts from the fruits. Then, they hunch over open fires to roast the nuts, emitting toxic carcinogens which cause respiratory health issues. Finally, they manually separate the nut from the shell which often secretes oil causing rashes akin to poison ivy.



Prototyping Back in Tulsa

Back home in Oklahoma, the team started looking for solutions to make the cashew process safer, more comfortable, and more productive for the villagers. They started thinking about a new kind of cook stove that could extract more cashew oil while reducing emissions of carcinogens. They posed the challenge to a senior class of engineers – develop a cook stove from local materials, that’s ergonomic, emits little to no smoke, and collects the most cashew oil possible all for under $100

“We should never lose sight of the end customer when designing for Bottom of Pyramid customers” Kevin told them - advice not lost on the engineers. In fact, David, one of the students, put the cashew oil on his arm to experience what it felt like and ended up taking a trip to the doctor.

Prototyping has proven to be an exciting but challenging process for the students. Aside from the cost constraint, the students must only use materials and methods that are available in Carrilho. For instance, the team cannot solder metal together, and must use traditional bolts. “We want everything we do to be sustainable,” said Kevin. After many iterations, the team is making progress. They now have a stove that extracts 12% of the cashew oil out of an available 15%, a dramatic increase from the initial 1-3% their first prototype yielded. They also found a way to use the shell of the nuts to fuel the stove; therefore, reducing the fuel costs. All together, they hypothesize their improvements in oil capture and fuel savings should generate an increase of 10-20% in household income for the villagers.

Kevin knows well complex problems of poverty cannot be solved by one product alone.

Using a framework from +Acumen’s Making Sense of Social Impact course, Kevin identified critical success factors for this project and pushed his students to not only think about the final product but also what else may need to happen in order to achieve the desired social outcomes. In addition to the cook stove, Bruno is working on negotiating fairer cashew export prices. Meanwhile, business students are strategizing a plan for a local co-op to sell their products to the formal markets in Brazil. And nursing students are building a partnership with a local university to provide ongoing health care to the community. As for the engineers? They are going back to Brazil this July to test their latest prototype with the villagers.

When we asked Kevin what his ideal outcome for this project is, he said that he hopes they can find a way to empower local entrepreneurs to build a sustainable business around this new cook stove and help their fellow villagers improve their livelihood. For now, he says: “I absolutely have the best time in the world seeing all the students learn from each other. Looking at the issue of poverty in a very tangible way is really enhancing their learning. For young people with a social motivation, this gives them an over-all perspective on life.”

This story is far from over. There is still plenty of work to be done by this group. Kevin, Bruno and their students are fully aware that the journey toward real transformation takes patience, persistence, trust and a whole lot of prototypes. We’ll be checking back in with Kevin and his team after they get back from Brazil. Stay tuned!

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