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Social enterprises empower communities

MIT students launch social enterprises that work with communities to foster financial and environmental sustainability.
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Sid Kamath MBA '15, founder of GreenPath Food, unloads one of the first permaculture avocado harvests.
Sid Kamath MBA '15, founder of GreenPath Food, unloads one of the first permaculture avocado harvests.
An Ethiopian farmer working with GreenPath Food admires his avocado trees.
An Ethiopian farmer working with GreenPath Food admires his avocado trees.
Sidhanth Pai '14 works on ReFilBot, a machine used for transforming recycled plastic flakes into 3-mm 3-D printing filament.
Sidhanth Pai '14 works on ReFilBot, a machine used for transforming recycled plastic flakes into 3-mm 3-D printing filament.
Protoprint's filament lab at a garbage dump in collaboration with SWaCH, one of India’s largest waste-pickers cooperatives.
Protoprint's filament lab at a garbage dump in collaboration with SWaCH, one of India’s largest waste-pickers cooperatives.

During their time at MIT, two recent graduates, Sidhanth Kamath MBA '15 and Sidhant Pai '14, started two very different organizations, one addressing poverty and food in Ethiopia, and the other poverty and recycling in India. While their projects focus on different issues on different continents, they have much in common: They both employ a social enterprise model to work collaboratively with communities on addressing pressing challenges and improving their standard of living. In addition to relying on sustainable methods and training, these enterprises operate a supply chain on behalf of the local community by acting as distributors for their fair trade products.

Sustainable food for economic empowerment

In 2014, Kamath co-launched GreenPath Food, a social enterprise focused on sustainable farming in Butajara, Ethiopia. GreenPath Food’s secret is permaculture, an organic and sustainable method of growing food. “If executed appropriately, permaculture farms can provide more food per square foot, using less resources than conventional smallholder farms,” Kamath says. A range of plants, herbs, shrubs, bushes, and trees — including some that are not directly edible — are grown in carefully designed guilds in order to take full advantage of complementary biological systems. In a permaculture-designed system, groups of plants add to the soil the fertility that other groups of plants require. Some plants act as pest repellents, others as insect attractors to preserve the food crops. The system is designed to harness natural fertility, resulting in naturally organic and genuinely sustainable crops. GreenPath trains farmers in permaculture techniques and then buys their produce at a fair-trade price.

Kamath learned about permaculture from Eliot Coleman, a farmer based in Maine who has successfully turned a small 1.4-acre plot of land into a high-yield sustainable farm. While suitable for small-scale farms, permaculture renders high-yield crops. Farmers can rely on their small plots of land to feed their family and sell their crops at a fair price. “Our goal is to increase farmer incomes sustainably through teaching techniques that improve yield per square foot, and paying better prices per kilogram,” Kamath says.

Eighteen families have participated in the program so far, with 20 more to join the program this summer. Their primary crop is avocado, but they are successfully intercropping chives, Chinese chives, oregano, thyme, garlic, lemon verbena, lavender, sweet potatoes, and beets. “Our work has now directly impacted over 100 individuals who work on 18 farms, growing a variety of crops,” Kamath says.

According to its website, Green Path aims to support four out of the eight United Nations Development Goals: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, promote gender equality and empower women, global partnership for development, and ensure environmental sustainability. GreenPath plans to measure the impact of their farmers’ agricultural productivity, their quality of life, and the surrounding environment through a partnership with local food policy researchers.

But training and sustainable agriculture are not enough to raise farmers out of poverty. GreenPath’s professional supply chain operation brings the produce from the farmer on to the shelves of food markets. GreenPath manages the “supply chain operation, including purchasing from farmers, operating cold-stores, packing and sorting facilities, and managing shipping and logistics, [as well as] operating a professional market development, branding and sales function that identifies the best markets and buyers for organic Ethiopian produce,” Kamath says.

A graduate of the MBA program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a fellow at MIT’s Legatum Center, Kamath previously worked with the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency on agriculture policy before coming to MIT. As an MIT student, Kamath received two Public Service Center Fellowships and one grant, and with his team, was one of the winners of 2015 the IDEAS Global Challenge. Kamath recently received an MIT D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship.

“It is funding like this, that allows for the on-the-ground presence at key moments in a project’s development trajectory, that can really give the work a true boost,”  Kamath says. “In our case, I was able to spend time with farmers, our expanding team, potential retailers, government officials who needed to meet with me to feel comfortable about the project, and this ability to be face-to-face with the various actors and individuals involved with GreenPath was invaluable.”

MIT Public Service Center (PSC) co-director and fellowships administrator Alison Hynd says, “As someone with a background in agricultural archaeology, this project is very exciting to me! GreenPath is marrying ancient farming techniques with modern supply chain and marketing practices to improve the lives of farmers and the sustainability of the land they care for. Sid and his team have made incredible progress over the past 18 months, and I’m looking forward to seeing what their latest funding will enable them to do.”

This summer, Kamath will be joined by Kristen Dormanen MBA '15, a fellow MIT Sloan graduate and PSC Fellow.

Kamath is careful not to claim success too early: “We want to be honest to ourselves and the broader world about whether this type of high-intensity farming model will work. In the future, though, we aim to serve thousands of farmers across East Africa, building the region's largest organic food company.”

Plastic waste to 3-D printing

Sidhant Pai, a 2014 environmental engineering graduate, has been working for several years on another social enterprise, one that empowers Indian urban waste pickers with the technology to turn plastic waste into 3-D printer filament. Protoprint, as the company is called, plans to sell the filament globally as a price-competitive, fair-trade alternative to virgin filament. “As 3-D printing becomes more mainstream, we're just adding more virgin plastic to our environment. As an industry, it's projected to quadruple in size over the next six years. Given that it's still in its early stages, we have the option to make it a much greener industry if we act now,” Pai says.

Pai works closely with his father on building the machines required to convert the plastic into 3-D filament. Protoprint has set up its first “Filament Lab” at a garbage dump in the city of Pune in collaboration with SWaCH, one of India’s largest waste pickers cooperatives. A Pune native himself, Pai was intent on working with waste pickers. “I am very interested in grassroots development and wanted to work with the waste pickers directly because I think the best way to empower a community is to make them a primary stakeholder in the model. On a personal front, working directly with the community has been extremely educational, and I am glad I chose to do it,” Pai says.

Protoprint partnered with SWaCH to help as many waste pickers as possible. “Given the size and reach of SWaCH there's a lot more potential for growth. That being said, we have helped smaller communities elsewhere and are always open to working with new communities,” Pai explains. Currently, they have trained 35 to 40 waste pickers. Sandhya Dhamale, who has worked with SWaCH for over five years, thinks this partnership will help "because it will train waste pickers…to learn new skills and live better lives."

Like GreenPath Food, Protoprint will act as a distributor, which ensures that the recycled 3-D filament reaches markets otherwise not easily available to waste pickers. “Protoprint partners with semi-organized communities of waste pickers to provide them with the infrastructure and training to convert the waste plastic they collect into 3-D printer filament,” says Pai. “We vertically integrate much of the production steps to maximize the value the waste pickers gain. The production sites are eventually transferred completely to the community with Protoprint acting purely as a market connector and quality assurance.”

The social enterprise as a business model can address critical social and environmental issues. Pai thinks “it will have an important niche in tackling issues that have market-driven solutions.”

Pai received grant support from the PSC and won an IDEAS Global Challenge Award in 2014. He is also a D-Lab Scale-ups Fellow and a MIT Legatum Fellow. “MIT has been incredibly supportive of the project, and I can definitely say I would not have been able to implement the pilot without the financial support and mentorship from programs like [those at] the PSC,” Pai says.

“We’ve been thrilled to support young ventures like Protoprint and GreenPath Food because of their dedication to working closely with communities,” says IDEAS Global Challenge Administrator Keely Swan. “These projects are inspiring not only because of the early impact they have achieved, but also because of the thoughtful and reflective manner in which Pai and Kamath involve their local partners. In addition, both alums have been very generous in sharing the lessons they learned throughout their work, which is incredibly useful for modeling best practices to other students.”

Pai and Kamath’s social enterprises illuminate innovative, and potentially scalable, ways to care for the planet and its people, by placing a high value on people and the environment.

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