Rutgers team wins $1 million 'Nobel Prize for students' with project in Pakistan

The Hult Prize Finals and Awards Dinner 2017 at the United Nations
Former President Bill Clinton (center) poses with the members of the winning team from Rutgers University during the Hult Prize Finals and Awards Dinner on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, at the United Nations headquarters in New York. From left: Gia Farooqi, Hanaa Lakhani, Clinton, Moneed Mian, and Hasan Usmani.

For recent Rutgers graduate Hasan Usmani, the sight of the vast Karachi slum was a shock, despite his family connections and previous visits to Pakistan.

The 8,000-acre Orangi Town, home to 2.5 million people, many of them refugees from Afghanistan and Bangladesh, is barely livable, the 23-year-old said. Lacking adequate sewer lines, its streets are awash in wastewater when it rains. One resident told Usmani her children shower only once a week so the family can afford food.

“I was surprised to see people living in these conditions and surviving,” Usmani said.

He and three other fellow business school students at Rutgers University in New Brunswick — Hanaa Lakhani, Gia Farooqi, and Moneed Mian — had gone there in May with a project in mind to help the slum residents: solar-powered rickshaws. It was a concept that had won a regional competition earlier. When they got to Pakistan, an even better idea emerged: a ride-share program to better connect impoverished residents of the shantytown to rickshaws, an Uber of sorts.

This month, their pilot program, Roshni Rides, snagged first place and $1 million in start-up capital in the prestigious Hult Prize competition, founded by Swedish businessman Bertil Hult and funded by his family. The award has been dubbed the Nobel Prize for students.

Among the runners-up? A team from Harvard.

The winning idea: a ride-sharing network in urban “settlements” such as Orangi Town used to transport refugees with little money to such destinations as schools, hospitals, and markets. Customers purchase scannable prepaid cards, similar to some subway cards, to pay for rickshaws shuttling among predetermined pick-up locations. Participating vendors sell the cards.

Former President Bill Clinton announced the champions at the Sept. 16 event. The competition, affiliated with the Clinton Global Initiative, this year had called for proposals to develop a business that could affect one million refugees by 2022.

Speaking in New York, Clinton called the six finalists “immensely impressive” and said the teams were tackling issues that governments should be addressing.

Camera icon Courtesy: Roshni Rides
Roshni Rides, a project of a group of students at Rutgers University-New Brunswick began a six-week pilot program in Karachi, Pakistan’s Orangi Town shantytown in May 2017. The pilot enlisted three rickshaw drivers in an Uber-like ride-sharing program that got them new customers and provided much needed affordable transportation to the refugees who reside in the vast slum. And the project by a group of Pakistani-American students just won the $1 million Hult Prize.

“This is a private solution to a public problem that will have a big impact,” Clinton said of Roshni Rides. “For all the people preaching division in the United States, look at these people; they are from Rutgers University.”

Clinton noted even losing teams in the past have gone on to start successful companies. This year’s final proposals included a digital platform produced by Harvard University students that would connect refugees with outsourced work, as well as ecological dry toilets for refugees, by University of Calgary students.

The six-week pilot program that the Rutgers team introduced in Orangi Town involved three rickshaw drivers and served 130 people in total. Riders were charged about 80 rupees, a little over $1, for a single ride, half the typical fare of 160 rupees, Usmani said.

Most rickshaws in Pakistan, he said, are underused by refugees and other slum dwellers because of their cost. The rickshaw drivers, in turn, stick to wealthier areas, though they face greater competition there for riders.

Often, rickshaw drivers who serve the slums jack up fares, said Farooqi during the student group’s pitch to the panel of judges at the United Nations. If someone in an emergency needs to go to a hospital, drivers may charge more than triple the normal fare, she said.

Refugees in the slum are left with two options: Walk for long in the heat or ride a dangerously packed bus. But Roshni Rides’ prepaid card eliminates the possibility of indiscriminate price hikes by creating a flat rate for participating rickshaw drivers, while providing a salary and new paying customers for the drivers.

“Imagine if your ability to get to school, bring your loved one to the hospital, or even get a job was limited by how far you could walk,” Farooqi told the audience.

In six weeks, the riders’ transportation costs were cut by over 50 percent while the three participating drivers saw a nearly 30 percent increase in income.

The global Hult competition drew 50,000 entries.

After winning the regional competition in March, the Rutgers group had used crowdfunding to raise $30,000 for their pilot program.

The three recent Rutgers alumni and one current undergraduate are all Pakistani Americans and volunteered as students at Rutgers’ Muslim Student Association. As Muslims, they identify strongly with their religion, and the victory was significant for their entire community, alumna Hanaa Lakhani said.

Even the company’s name points to their roots, Lakhani said. Roshni translates as “light” in Urdu, an official language in Pakistan.

“The fact that we’re all visibly Muslim … it says a lot and speaks for a community,” Lakhani said. “Oftentimes we don’t see strong individuals in public spaces for people who look like us.”

While all had visited Pakistan previously to meet family, Usmani said their recent trip was the first time they witnessed Karachi’s slums up close. Seeing the dismal conditions was eye-opening for the four friends.

The densely populated city has long had informal settlements, with the first one popping up in 1947 amid the sectarian violence that erupted after India was partitioned to create Pakistan. Today, many of the town’s refugees come from Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and it is considered the largest slum in Asia.

“Some people in the country are living very lavishly, and then you go to the next town over, and it’s a slum,” Usmani said.

During their three-month stay, the team mapped out stops, began hiring drivers who already owned underused rickshaws, and studied rider behavior. Ultimately, they hope the business enables the refugees to rise above the poverty line.

“These are people who live day to day, and whatever they make that day, that is what they’re going to feed their families with. They are at the lowest spectrum of the economic ladder,” Usmani said. “We want to create savings for them.”

The $1 million prize will go a long way.

The team hopes to use the money to expand the service into other informal settlements and possibly power the rickshaws by electricity instead of gas. By 2022, their goal is to serve more than two million refugees with a fleet of 1,200 rickshaws.

For team adviser Alok Baveja, watching his students shake hands with the 42nd president filled him with “pure elation.” The supply chain management professor spent months helping the team prepare its pitch and perfect the concept, along with  adjunct professor Daria Torres, who is managing partner at Walls Torres Group, a management consulting firm in Mount Laurel.

“Overall, Roshni Rides’ concept has beauty in its simplicity, power in its business model, and greatness in its global impact,” Baveja said. “The team focused on making a difference, not just making money.”