Starring in a reality TV show was the last thing that three undergraduates thought would happen when they created a business plan for Lecturer John Danner’s Entrepreneurship to Address Global Poverty class last spring.
But a reality TV show — and the contest they entered to get on it — may be just the publicity the students need to move their Bamboo Lota project forward.
In studying his assigned country of Malawi in Danner's class last spring, Kyson Bunthuwong, BA 10 (International Political Economy), learned that an informal trade in charcoal has contributed to rapid deforestation. Charcoal, used by 90 percent of the population, has contributed to a more than 12 percent decline in the African nation's forest cover from 1990 to 2005. He also discovered that in parts of Asia, people create charcoal from fast-growing bamboo and realized the same could be done in Malawi.
Using this information, Bunthuwong teamed up with classmates Stephanie Wu, BA 10 (Mass Communications and Interdisciplinary Studies), and Joanna Kim, BA 09 (Interdisciplinary Studies), to create a business plan for Bamboo Lota. (Lota means “to dream” in Chichewa, the local language.) Their proposal: to teach local residents of Monkey Bay on Lake Malawi how to grow and harvest bamboo, make it into charcoal, and sell the finished product. Although initially a nonprofit, it will develop into a for-profit enterprise to be turned over to Malawians after six years. Other bamboo products may follow, but the focus is on charcoal.
The team is one of three finalists — the other two are from Tulane University — in Movers and Changers, a national competition sponsored by mtvU and NYSE Euronext to discover the nation’s top college-student social entrepreneurs. On Nov. 5, mtvU came to Berkeley to film the three team members for “Movers and Changers,” a short-format reality TV show that will premiere Nov. 23.
The Berkeley team flew to New York Nov. 15 to participate in the NYSE Euronext Global Entrepreneurship Week: Mentoring Madness, where students from around the world will meet with business executives and leading entrepreneurs such as Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes.
As part of the week, the finalists will present their business plans to the Movers & Changers Board. Each finalist team already has received $5,000. The final winners will receive $25,000 in startup funds for their project and get to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
“I didn’t quite expect all this," says Wu. "Not only would winning the $25,000 give us the opportunity to travel to Malawi and to fund startup research and development costs, but participating in Movers and Changers also will help us strengthen Bamboo Lota's business plan through the guidance of well-known mentors."
Danner, a senior fellow with the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, agrees. “The job of an entrepreneur is a lot of telling and selling," he says. "Putting forth their idea in this sort of format will be a quick lesson in what it takes to compete and what it takes to persuade."
The mtvU success comes on top of Bamboo Lota's high ranking in the October round of the National Peace Corps Association's Africa Rural Connect Competition, which qualifies the trio to compete for a $20,000 grand prize.
“Bamboo Lota is a great example of how the power of entrepreneurial ideas can potentially change the world and deal with big intractable problems like global poverty,” Danner says.