Students join SUMA Net Impact for the opportunity to work on pro-bono consulting projects for their clients. The Soluminos Spring 2020 team was particularly excited to have the chance to work with one of our classmates, a fellow SUMA student. Cynthia Leung, the Founder of Soluminos, had the vision to create portable solar charging stations using refurbished panels to be deployed as a solution for disaster relief. Soluminos had already developed an initial product design and business plan with the assistance of a previous Net Impact team. The Spring 2020 team’s key tasks were to use the last team’s work to create a pilot plan for product deployment in Puerto Rico and identify the logistical challenges and solutions in the supply chain. Our team consisted of 6 members with diverse international backgrounds. They were Amira Maryana, Greg Hopper, Joaquin Rosas, Julie Hurewitz, Niki Shah, and our project Manager was Sally Bingfeng Song.
With guidance from Cynthia, the team created a mind map to visualize the scope of our project and the key tasks that needed to be accomplished. We broke down our work into two buckets: 1) Background that can be used as input for the plan, and 2) Develop the strategic plan by using the background information as input. We focused first on background, as that would shape our strategic plan. Sally researched case studies in Puerto Rico and New Orleans to identify best practices for disaster relief deployment and the opportunities and challenges associated with local renewable projects in disaster relief situations. Greg developed a GIS map to understand the demographics of Puerto Rico and gain a holistic understanding of the local population, income, and energy sources. Joaquin focused on identifying critical policies in the U.S. and Puerto Rico that would impact our strategy and reveal new opportunities for grants. Julie and Amira concentrated on the challenges associated with shipping Lithium Ion batteries overseas and how we would overcome logistical challenges. Nikki dug into the finance plan and focused his research on the choice between a Non-profit and a For-Profit financial model. Our team knew we would need to take this background knowledge and apply it to our Strategy Plan, which included Deployment, Stakeholder Mapping and Analysis, Customer Engagement and Survey, and Business Model. We focused on the strategic plan for the second half of the semester.
Luckily, our client worked closely with us, and it was never a challenge to meet with her to brainstorm, validate ideas, and get the information needed to do our work. We found a problem working on a Pilot Plan for a product that had not yet gone through Beta testing. We quickly realized that Soluminos would not be able to launch a pilot without first conducting a beta test. With this realization, we added create beta test outline to our preparation for pilot and project deliverables.
Our final deliverables were built off the background that was conducted in the first half of the semester. Using this background knowledge and personal business experiences, we created a preparation for a pilot for our client. This preparation plan included a framework for tasks and timeline, stakeholder mapping and recommendation for collaborators, beta testing framework, and customer survey draft, logistics recommendations, and a plan for a pilot in Puerto Rico.
While our client had initially planned to launch a pilot in June 2020, the impacts of COVID-19 pushed this date back. We hope that the frameworks and opportunities we recommended for our client to use in the Beta testing and Pilot Plan Implementation provide value for Soluminos. Overall there were a few key takeaways from this project. Project members developed a fundamental understanding of beta testing and product deployment. We got experience with the challenges that start-ups face in product deployment and learned about expanding a project scope as the client work evolves.
Leveraging the power of reuse schemes to boost the transition towards a circular economy
In February 2020, the project in collaboration with The Recycling Partnership was launched. The Recycling Partnership is a leading nonprofit organization transforming recycling for good in states, cities and communities all across the U.S. For this particular project The Recycling Partnership chose to expand its horizons and gave us the task to conduct a landscape analysis of reuse initiatives across the country. This analysis aimed to provide the organization with a detailed list of potential scalable solutions that could be in the future expanded and taped into with the help of TRP.
We have been in charge of exploring the waste management industry with a focus on researching current reuse schemes and models across industries and international boundaries. Our second task was identifying gaps in reuse models and present opportunities for The Recycling Partnership. Ultimately our goal was to identify scalable investment solutions to protect resources, empower sustainable action and unlock opportunity.
We faced challenges while selecting the most scalable alternatives. At the end of the day reuse is a fairly new field and one initiative over another is hard to compare. Audiences and services may differ a lot and all initiatives are needed so it was hard to deliver the ultimate recommendation.
This encompassing landscape analysis of reuse schemes enabled us to gain knowledge on the ambitious initiatives that have been undertaken so far in the reuse space. Additionally this research will be an asset for TRP to leverage for the expansion of their outreach.
The team members were exceptionally thankful for the opportunity to work for first hand with the client. We gained circular economy and waste management knowledge, developed research and analytical skills along with relationship development. At the same time, TRP provided fast and efficient responses that allowed the team to tackle each barrier quickly.
Since 2010, The Detox Market has been curating the best of green beauty to provide customers with confidence in their choices. Their focus has been primarily on avoiding toxic, chemically-charged cosmetic products, and although being environmentally conscious has always been key in their business, they realized it was time to take it to the next level. Our team members – Arianna Bottome, Blair Diehl, Emma Lawrence, Laura Shutack and Zoë Gaston – were tasked to create a sustainability beauty framework to inspire brands sold at The Detox Market to implement responsible practices. Additionally, the client requested we develop a strategy specific to their in-house brand, Detox Mode, currently producing a line of 8 all-natural, safe and effective skincare products.
Part of our goal for this project was to simplify the complex idea of sustainability to provide small brands with opportunities to create a positive impact regardless of the resources available to them. We wanted to make our strategy accessible, clear and easily digestible.
We started by researching common environmental and social challenges across the cosmetics supply chain. The stages we selected include: raw material sourcing and processing, product manufacturing, packaging, consumer use, and end-of-life. Once these challenges were identified, we used them to guide our strategy formulations, and, by gathering information individual to the Detox Mode, we created a separate plan with specific steps unique to them.
Knowing that we had to create an industry-wide framework and propose solutions that could be adopted by multiple brands, we also developed a “Self-Assessment Workbook” so that any brand using this material is able to connect where sustainability falls in their business model, and select the solutions that fit their operations the best.
Our final product was divided into 4 main parts, including:
A Cosmetics Supply Chain Analysis: Including an overview of each stage analyzed, a ranking according to the level of risk associated to each stage, the drivers behind the impacts, and targets and strategies to address them.
A Self-Assessment Workbook: A tool to guide brands in finding an alignment with sustainable goals based on where they are today. In this section we also provided suggestions for measuring, benchmarking and tracking their progress.
Best Practices for Detox Mode: A set of actionable steps and recommendations specific to the Detox Mode.
Resources: A selection of tools and helpful resources for any brand to get started in their sustainability journey, including greenhouse gas calculators, certifications, reporting frameworks, and more.
It is essential to understand where you are to understand where you can and need to get. There is no single right way to improve sustainability, and before setting any goals or targets, brands must measure their impacts to identify the potential for change and reduction under their individual circumstances. It is ok to start small, and our aim is that our work can be used as an incentive for continuous growth.
Ilara Health is a start-up diagnostic company based in Kenya that is trying to change the way healthcare is delivered. Started in 2019 by Emilian Popa, Ilara provides lab-quality diagnostics to healthcare clinics that serve a low-income population in peri-urban locations. The need is great in communities like these across sub-Saharan Africa. The challenges are summed up by some sobering quotes, “3 million people across low and middle-income countries die yearly from lack of access to care” and “5 million people die yearly from receiving low quality health care.” Emilian saw a chance to change the staggering inequity of healthcare where “…500 million people across sub-Saharan Africa struggle to access or afford even a simple blood test.” He began to import mobile, high-tech diagnostic equipment that has replaced the large bulky equipment of the last decade in developed nations. Ilara currently offers four diagnostic devices (see appendix below) focused across chronic diseases, infectious disease and maternal care. There is a lack of awareness in this region about the growing pervasiveness of chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In addition, preventative medicine is not a common practice as seen by the lack of a simple ultrasound for pre-natal care. Ilara is trying to change this by increasing awareness among doctors at the clinics of how to screen patients for chronic diseases, so they can manage their symptoms better, while expectant mothers can be screened for easily identified pregnancy complications.
Our Net Impact team, comprised of Pamela Kauppila (project head), Alexandra Failla, Jeff Robertson and Will Zurier, was initially tasked with determining key social impact metrics and implementing processes to track those KPI’s. While Ilara had data from specific clinics and expected data directly from the devices themselves, we soon learned that the integrity of this data was compromised as inputs were inconsistent or not specifically relevant to the impact we were trying to measure. After this determination, our team decided to pivot to a new strategy to help create the relevant data for KPI’s. Our updated scope was to generate new and original data from clinics that Ilara serves and we did this by creating a “survey” for its clinic customers designed to reveal impact metrics. To ensure relevant data, we first had to discern Ilara’s key objectives:
Create a market: democratize access to diagnostic tests
Create awareness around chronic diseases: for both doctors and patients
Enable positive outcomes for patients: follow-up for patients once diagnosed
Increase profitability of clinics
We used input from management as well as the IRIS+ framework for guidance in crafting our questions. During the process, Ilara management was eager to expand the survey to not only to re-engage with their existing customers for KPI data but to also get feedback from them on how prepared they felt in using the devices, patients reactions to them and their ability to grow their clinic business given the addition of the new services they now offered. Once completed, Ilara’s reps began to administer the surveys to their clinic base.
The early survey results began to shed some light on progress towards Ilara’s key objectives. In terms of awareness of chronic disease, clinics cite a slight-to-significant increase in awareness of diabetes while they see only a slight increase in awareness of cardiovascular disease (see image 1 below). Clinics confirmed that the convenience of having the tests provided “in-house” significantly increases the likelihood of a patient getting tested versus a referral to a lab, tying back to their objective to democratize testing (image 2). Clinics are showing increased percentages of patients returning for follow-up care after being diagnosed with a chronic disease (image 3). In addressing the growth factors associated with the clinics themselves, 40% of clinics indicated a higher level of trust among patients due to the offering of “high tech” devices while another 40% indicated that they were now able to attract a broader base of clients (image 4). While these results are early indicators, we expect to have a fuller picture once they have surveyed all ~50 clinics in their network. While the anecdotal nature of the output may not provide quantitative KPI’s, they will at least be able to show initial indicators of how they are impacting the healthcare clinics as well as the local communities they serve. More importantly, this provides valuable feedback to Ilara on how it is serving it mission and areas for improvement.
Over the longer term, Ilara will begin to collect its own data directly from the devices utilized at the clinics and this will become a new project. Once they have this device data in hand, it will need to be analyzed, measured to benchmarks, and linked to the patient’s follow-up care. In our parting discussions, we recommended that they make comparisons of the results to other data sets to ensure consistency. This should include comparing device data with survey results, clinic results ‘pre’ and ‘post’ Ilara implementation, and test outcomes versus the national averages.
It has been a truly gratifying experience to work with a start-up with a big mission – to change the way healthcare is delivered. We saw first-hand the challenges Ilara faced and the opportunities they are pursuing. We wish them the best of luck as they continue to grow and expand!
Ilara Health currently offer four devices (clockwise from upper left):
PixoTest device for diagnosing diabetes
Kardia AliveCor EKG device for diagnosing cardiovascular disease
Hematology device for diagnosing certain infectious diseases
Butterfly IQ Ultrasound device for pre-natal maternal care
Xima is a staple in Mozambican meals. This pliable paste made by heating cornmeal and water serves as a perfect canvas for rich sauces and vegetable, seafood or meat dishes. For many inhabitants of the Sofala province in central Mozambique, however, xima might be the only food on their plates every day. In Mozambique, it is beloved for its ability to fill stomachs and impart energy for working on farms. Taste, texture, and nutritional value are less pressing concerns.
Our client, Azada Verde, is changing that through their mission to build sustainable local food systems in Mozambique. As part of this mission they seek to diversify meals. Their website asks plaintively, “Would you eat the same thing over and over again, 365 days a year?”
The brief given to our team appeared straightforward at first blush. Azada Verde wanted a three-year sustainability strategy aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We got to work, poring over its website, social media accounts, financial records, and program documentation in search of information that would eventually be organized into a coherent strategy.
The team was fortunate to be in constant and direct contact with Azada Verde’s founder Hugo Dalmau Coll. We interviewed Hugo endlessly, in person and through emails. He remained available for video chats even as Covid-19 forced our team and client into three different time zones.
It was quickly evident to us that Hugo cared deeply for his constituents and was eager to expand and make a greater impact. But the information we studied told of a need for deeper organizational foundations. Azada Verde and their programs appeared to have emerged organically, as needs arose, before Hugo and his partners had time to formalize an overarching organizational strategy or program-specific plans.
Azada Verde is not alone in being galvanized to action faster than one can strategize. Nonprofits come into existence precisely to address problems, often critical ones, that have fallen through gaps in government or business structures. For better or for worse, government and business rules still apply. It is not sufficient for a nonprofit to simply do good. They must also convincingly demonstrate how that good is accomplished. It should also be backed up by rules and systems to ensure that positive impact can be continually achieved.
To that end, the team produced two deliverables. The first is a brochure to introduce Azada Verde to external partners. With the masterful touch of Professor Anne Burt, who teaches a class on communications for Columbia’s Nonprofit Management program, we reformulated Azada Verde’s Mission, Vision, and Values.
The second report was internal. We identified six SDGs to focus on. We critiqued the liberal sprinkling of sustainability buzzwords throughout their content. We suggested a limited pool of stakeholders to engage with. We proposed ways to concretize the nuts and bolts of their existing programs before leaping to expansions and other ambitious endeavors. In short, we were asking our client to not overextend themselves until the basics were indubitable.
Our recommendations, if you will, were serendipitously similar to xima. The seemingly mundane parts of running a nonprofit might not be as appetizing as accomplishing lofty humanitarian goals. But they are part of a solid foundation that needs to be done right for a strong organization to thrive.
We have been privileged to work with a town that is strongly committed to sustainable city planning and looking toward long-term environmental development. Our team was able to make a trip to Lenox in October, which provided a wholesome experience of the Town’s true pledge clean air, water, infrastructure, and recreation.
Our client, Lenox, Massachusetts, is a small town of roughly 5,000 people on the western border of MA. The team consists of Fernando Ortiz, Nidhi Singh, Tyler Taba, Marielena Rios, Niko Martecchini, and Emily Lee. Everybody comes from a diverse set of disciplines, such as ship engineering, wastewater management in India, non-profit business administration, and more, which helped bring a well rounded assortment of ideas to the table. Most of the students are new to the consulting world, so having Celine Solsken Ruben-Salama as the faculty advisor was invaluable given her expertise in consulting and CSR reporting. We have been working directly with Lenox’s Town Planner, Gwen Miller, and the Water Department Superintendent, Bob Horn. SUMA Net Impact delivered a project to Lenox last semester, drafting an EMS report with some ideas for the town’s Master Plan. This semester, the scope was narrowed to focus on sustainable water management, specifically water supply, targets, purification, and wastewater treatment. This time around, the project scope included:
Creating a monitoring and implementing plan for the targets related to water for the short, medium and long term.
Assessing options for processing bio-solids, potentially retrofitting existing infrastructure and making relevant recommendations.
Researching alternatives for water purification within the town as well as supply from neighboring towns during drought season.
Calculating the GHG footprint using the calculator tool delivered by the previous team.
Data, data, and … more data. The biggest challenge for our team was compiling enough data to make rational and realistic recommendations for the client. Some areas more than others required significant figures in order to make proper proposals. For example, in the water targets portion of our project, the town was interested in learning how they can meet the needs of the town’s water consumption levels while reducing their water usage rates. It is noteworthy that Lenox see’s a major increase in tourist population during the summer and winter months. Their population doubles from about 5,000 to 9,800-10,000 when tourists visit. This increase obviously stresses water usage for hotels, outdoor recreation, and general water practices. A major dataset that we were hoping to receive included the usage rates from hotels since hotels and B&B’s see a large increase in their reservations during this time. While some of the recommendations included more efficient shower-heads, limits on water usage during certain hours, etc., we believe we could have made more specific suggestions if we had some stronger data on the actual numbers (in gallons) of the town’s relevant industries.
Another challenge related to data came from either not receiving any data or receiving data too late in the process. This was the principal concern for the GHG footprint portion of our project. Unfortunately, we were never granted access to the town’s GHG portal. This made the footprint nearly impossible to develop. Instead, we focused on expanding the previous semester’s GHG tool, hoping to make it as user friendly as possible so the town would be able to input their numbers and run valuable analyses with the data they already have.
Budgetary constraints and unknowns were the final challenge we confronted. This pertains specifically to the water supply and purification segment of our project. Different water treatment plants have varying costs, and the town is unsure how much money they can budget for a new system. After some conference calls with the Water Superintendent, we opted to run a qualitative, rather than a quantitative, CBA. The town has received some grant funding for water systems, but they were not able to give us a threshold number to meet. In some ways this made the research easier, but we are not confident about how feasible or likely our recommendations are to take action.
Likely because of their previous experience with SUMA Net Impact, we received a high level of trust and communication with the client. In many cases, they were open to hearing our ideas with little input or command. The client believed in our work and gave us more autonomy than our group expected, which helped to deliver creative and innovative solutions to their requests.
As aforementioned, the town was also surprisingly committed to sustainable development. They mentioned several times that they are looking to meet Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) standards not only for 2018-2019, but also for 10-20 years down the road. Many of us grew up in areas where town planners are not necessarily looking to promote a sustainable lifestyle as much as an economic return, so we were fortunate to have such a forward thinking client.
In the end, our group will be delivering two designs for an upgraded water purification system. We are endorsing a microfiltration and an ultrafiltration plant for the next system. After researching several alternatives, including MF, UF, dissolved oxygen, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet purification, and chloramination, we concluded that the most realistic option for the town would be micro and ultrafiltration. After reviewing some of their water quality tests, we concluded the town already has clean raw water coming in, so UV, DO, and RO were a bit of an overkill in terms of their water cleaning capabilities and overall costs. The micro system is less expensive and purifies slightly less than ultrafiltration, which would be more practical for a large town with poor drinking water characteristics. Arguably, the most exciting recommendation we have is for biosolids from the wastewater section of our project. Our recommendation is to create a manmade wetland ecosystem to not only reduce the cost of transporting biosolids via trucks, but also to create an outdoor recreational residence for the members of the community and tourists to enjoy.
Sustainable Westchester is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to promote and develop sustainable frameworks for the County of Westchester, which includes more than 40 municipalities. The organization is set up as a membership system and includes impacts and solution development for each member municipality.
One of Sustainable Westchester’s current initiatives is a study on the improvement of the current food waste processing, primarily handled by incinerators at the moment. The client provided us with seven options to analyze for this study, along with some aspirational examples of solutions. The study was not meant to recommend one specific solution as a winner but rather to conduct a preliminary analysis on the main components of each, reflect on how they might be applied to Westchester and to provide a final overview of which solution or combination thereof could be taken into further consideration for a potential application in one or more of the target municipalities. The seven solutions analyzed were:
Co-digestion in wastewater treatment plant
Large-scale anaerobic digestion
Community-scale anaerobic digestion
Household anaerobic digestion
Household backyard composting
Our kickoff meeting with the client established the type of analysis to be conducted, options for the deliverable, and any considerations to be made in our analysis. Furthermore, we were provided some contacts for scenarios, while others relied principally on bibliographical research.
The process was mainly divided in four steps:
Introductory meetings with the client to lay out work plan and identify what other information or support the client can provide
Research and Information collection:
Interview with experts and stakeholders
Bibliographical / internet research to find comparable solutions in similarly sized areas. This also helped assess the viability of one solution compared to another for Westchester specifically
Interviews with neighbors (one of the team members, Andrew, is a resident and had direct contact with members of the community to gather information)
Interviews with leaders in waste management solutions (e.g. a meeting to collect information from Quasar)
Visiting the Yonkers Wastewater treatment plant
Developing the assessment criteria for each of the seven solutions, in order to:
Ensure that we can efficiently compare them when presenting to the client
Compare different solutions in a similar method, within the context of Westchester county. For example, we conducted a social impact assessment for each city’s potential solution
Assembling research, conclusions and developing the final matrix with supporting information in the report
Perhaps the most prominent challenge in this project, both at the planning stage and the execution was the comparison of scenarios of radically different sizes. As we were given seven possible solutions for a problem, we attempted to compare our solutions and analyses with metrics such as financial investment, waste inputs and land required among others. This proved to be challenging due to the lack of specific “boundaries” set forth by the client. For example, when assessing whether a large-scale water treatment plant was better than a large-scale composting facility, we were not able to conduct a full analysis as we did not have a decision making position in terms of allocating capital for each investment.
Surprises that we encountered throughout, which turned into important learning experiences, were:
Along with its increased technical requirements, how expensive anaerobic digestion is compared to aerobic
Assessing several different solutions for a set of municipalities in the same county that have different socioeconomic status and needs, and therefore varying viability for any given solution
The deliverable for this project is a matrix which presents each of the 7 solutions, along with a series of primary categories of assessment. In each category of assessment is an indicator (High, Medium, Low) which reflects the research conducted for the solution in question in the context of its applicability to Westchester County.
By developing this matrix, we are able to quickly and efficiently present which of the solutions are a potential topic for further discussion, and which are unadvisable even at a preliminary level of analysis. We believe that this output is a useful and concise summary of our analysis and by including it in a longer report we are able to provide more detail as to the logic and data supporting the results indicated in the table.
Through this project, our team learned the complexity of developing truly sustainable and viable solutions for urban areas. We gained experiences comparing seemingly incomparable scenarios and solutions with little to no parameters, which enabled us to improve our positions as independent thinkers and promoters of a sustainable mindset throughout our work and lives. Working in a team with diverse academic and professional backgrounds., we were empowered to draw from past experiences and bring new perspectives and ideas to the task at hand. We are pleased to know we have contributed the first step of a meaningful and socially important transition for how an entire county can handle waste management and ultimately benefit its citizens.
Measuring, tracking, and communicating the impact of SeaChange Capital Partner’s New York Mergers, Acquisitions, and Collaboration fund.
SUMA Net Impact’s Meeting at SeaChange Capital Partners with Jess Cavagnero (picture center).
SeaChange Capital Partners is a nonprofit merchant bank that works to enable transactions that increase the impact of nonprofits. SeaChange’s New York Merger, Acquisition and Collaboration (NYMAC) Fund, offers grants to encourage and support mergers, acquisitions, joint-ventures, and others types of formal, long-term collaborations between nonprofits predominantly serving New York City. To date, NYMAC has provided grants for more than 30 transactions in sectors including education, healthcare, community housing & development, children & youth, arts & culture, anti-poverty & social welfare, civil rights & social justice. The NYMAC Fund is led by SeaChange Partner Jess Cavagnero.
A team of five Columbia Sustainability Management students, Abbigael Foster, Lucas Piazza, Riyana Razalee, Niki Shah, Saiba Sharmeen, and Wei-Ling (Winnie) Sun, worked with Net Impact to provide pro bono services to SeaChange to help them understand the impact that NYMAC has. The team had an array of professional backgrounds including environmental consulting, brand strategy, marketing, sustainable finance, corporate sustainability, and transaction advisory. Faculty Advisor, Professor Satyajit Bose provided guidance to the team throughout the project.
The objective of the project was initially to analyze the social and financial impact of NYMAC’s grants and subsequently to develop key metrics to track in addition to developing a case study on the grantee organizations involved one of NYMAC’s transactions. Data pertaining to historical NYMAC transactions including grant letters, grantee interim progress reports, and grantee final reports was collected from SeaChange and analyzed. Unfortunately, after completing this initial data analysis, it was determined that due to the fact that the data was inconsistent, incomplete, and unquantifiable, that it was not possible to draw robust conclusions regarding NYMAC’s impact. After taking into account the time remaining to complete the project, the available data, and SeaChange’s needs and expectations, a new course of action was determined and agreed upon by all parties: the team would develop a robust set of key metrics to track in future transactions and organize them in the form of a tool, in addition to develop a case study template to allow SeaChange to easily promote the impacts of future transactions.
The Process and Results
To determine what metrics to include in the tool, the team reviewed various frameworks including the Global Reporting Initiative, IRIS by the Global Compact Investing Network, MSCI, and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board. A master list of metrics was compiled and evaluated to ensure that all metrics were: relevant to SeaChange and relevant to all potential grantee organizations, regardless of industry; quantifiable; meaningful; consistent; practical; actionable; and durable. A final list of metrics was developed across four categories: program performance, governance, financial sustainability, and social sustainability. This information was organized into an excel tool in which SeaChange can enter information before and after a transaction to subsequently asses change in the specified metrics and quantify its impact. An accompanying case study template was drafted which includes sections to provide context on the transaction, in addition to presenting the quantifiable metrics and analysis information drawn from the tool.
The Challenges and Learnings
The key challenge faced when preparing the deliverables was identifying and appropriately classifying the most important metrics for SeaChange. The team quickly learned that there was a plethora of metrics that could be been tracked to measure performance across many different categories ranging from governance to social impact. The team found that brainstorming sessions, although sometimes challenging, were the best way to determine the approach and the metrics that were ultimately selected. After the selected metrics were finalized, the team acknowledged how challenging it is to standardize impact measurement across disparate organizations. Despite these challenges, the team came to fully understand the importance of establishing clear KPIs and tracking data consistently. Additionally, as many team members had not previously worked in the non-profit space and this project offered them a humbling glimpse into the sector. From funding to leadership, the challenges nonprofits face are great, but it is inspiring that they nevertheless persevere in the name of advancing their missions.
Have you ever wondered how life would be without electricity? Living without electricity is unfathomable for those living in developed countries, especially us as Columbia students. However, approximately 16% of the global population have limited or no access to electricity. The striking similarity among this 16% is geographic location: over two-thirds of those below the energy-poverty line live in rural areas and the current situation in Myanmar is no different. More than 2/3 of the country’s population lack access to the national electricity grid and rural access is even more limited. To help address this issue, Net Impact took on Pact Innovation as a client. Pact anticipates these rural areas will still lack access despite national efforts to expand the grid. Further, microgrids are posed as an alternative solution for rural areas that cannot access the national grid.
Economic development becomes increasingly difficult without access to electricity; meanwhile the economic viability of an alternative electricity supply is low without proper demand. Team Myanmar’s mission was to address and stimulate the demand for electricity by supporting micro entrepreneurship in rural Myanmar, with the end goal of increasing GDP growth in selected areas. The team of five came up with comprehensive solutions to stimulate business demand for electricity. Team Myanmar consisted of five members from a diverse array of backgrounds, bringing a breadth of expertise to the project. Crysta, Frances and Pol worked diligently to develop a business template and industry specific business plans as two of the team’s deliverable’s. Their combined expertise in communications, corporate strategy, accounting and international development provided a solid foundation for the task. Team lead, Chanty, and Britt used their expertise in finance, project management and research to develop a guaranteeing financial system for the micro-entrepreneurs and local microfinance institutions. With the guidance of faculty advisor, Phil LaRocco, Team Myanmar developed four tools for Pact in a timely, coherent manner.
Team Myanmar’s journey began on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in Columbia University’s Science & Engineering Library where they met to narrow the scope of the project and discuss the first call with their point contact in Myanmar. The purpose of the first call was to attain first hand insight on the current situation in Myanmar. To complete their comprehensive understanding of Myanmar, the team performed extensive research on Myanmar’s geography, demographics, economy, business landscape, electrification status and its social and political stability. After narrowing the scope of this project, Team Myanmar subdivided into two groups: the business template/plan team and the financial system team.
In order to build the template model, Crysta used two credible examples of business templates in developing economies – REED Toolkit: A Handbook for Energy Entrepreneurs recommended by Professor LaRocca, and the International Labor Organization (ILO) Improve Your Business/Planning for Your Business Toolkit. The ILO toolkit was developed as part of a management-training program for small businesses, especially in poor populations and developing economies. It is very simple and straightforward – often using images and simple “quizzes” to teach management concepts, which inspired her to create an equally simple and straightforward template that entrepreneurs could use at the onset of their process to create their business and in conjunction with the other tools developed by the team (business models, money flow chart, and guaranteeing system). The flow-chart design is to allow users to work their way through all of the tools through a series of easy-to-answer questions. Pol and Frances used several resources to establish a specific business plan for both irrigation pump and oil expeller businesses. In addition to the ILO or REED catalogues, they used information from IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency), cases studies from the Hystra report on scaling energy projects in developing countries as well as some of the results from the Multifunction Platform in West Africa developed by the UNDP. Access to data from the focus areas was a huge barrier for the business team, yet they countered this by developing a model that is applicable in different types of settings.
Pact asked Team Myanmar to research and recommend a guaranteeing system based on financial institutions’ credit assessment. Myanmar’s microfinance system is still in its nascent stages and faces internal and external challenges. The Microfinance Law passed in 2011 has imposed numerous restrictions making it extremely difficult for local and foreign owned MFIs in Myanmar to secure funding from larger institutions. Moreover, the microfinance institutions lack collateral and adequate operational capacity, impeding the success and growth of these institutions. Individuals and communities in need of a proper financial system are also affected. On an individual level, access to financing is extremely difficult, even for those with viable business models. Eighty percent of Myanmar’s population has little or no access to credit.
Chanty and Britt tackled this by researching the current state of Myanmar’s microfinance system on an industry and individual level. They additionally researched best lending practices among international microfinance institutions as ranked by Forbes and the Mekong Business Initiative, which is a joint advisory facility of the Asian Development Bank and the Government of Australia. This research was used to compile a “borrower criteria checklist” and an “MFI guaranteeing system.” Amidst confusion around what constitutes as a “guaranteeing system,” the financial team developed two tools: one that can be used by a borrower and a tool useful for MFIs. The former deliverable is in the form of a yes/no survey, listing numerous individual and group lending standards that must be met in order to secure a loan. The latter deliverable will ensure MFIs can obtain funding from larger institutions, ultimately trickling down to individuals within society.
Team Myanmar experienced significant challenges throughout the project. Lack of access to hard data was a major challenge to the project’s progress and contact with the client was limited. Understanding what constitutes as a “guaranteeing system” and an “energy-based enterprise” was difficult given lack of clarity from the client. Nevertheless, the team’s goal was achieved by developing tools that are easy to use and able to facilitate training and education for a population of low literacy.
It’s 8:30 pm on Tuesday, February 13th in the basement hallway of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in the City of New York. At one end of the hall is the student lounge where a diligent clan of four talks about their group project on the cost of capital for a hypothetical solar energy project in Mexico for the Clean Energy Financing class. The offices, upstairs and down the hall, are empty. The nighttime security guard is calmly surveying the office because it is the bottom of the hour, just doing his job. This is a typical night early in the semester, except for one thing: the basement hallway stinks… there is garbage laid out, neatly separated, on plastic tarps. A different gang of four students is working diligently on their own group project: conducting their second night of waste audits, a dirty job that all 4 couldn’t wait to get started on.
These four men are part of the Sustainability Management chapter of Net Impact (SUMA Net Impact) project teams, specifically working with the Office of Environmental Stewardship’s (OES) Waste Management Strategy for Columbia. The goal is to gather data that will eventually allow OES to streamline waste collection and management and then make adjustments to reach the ultimate goal of zero waste in 2030. The procedure was:
Unravel: Lay a large (4 ft x 4 ft) plastic tarp on the hallway floor and overturn the first of 6 separate waste bins onto the tarp. This first bin is labeled “landfill”, so what should be in this bin is material that cannot be recycled and instead sent to the landfill (e.g. non-rigid plastic, soiled paper, food waste, styrofoam, etc.).
Separate: Carefully separate out materials that can be recycled, such as photocopy paper and soda cans. Separate food waste from the contents of the landfill bin.
Weigh each category of items to understand how much (in kilograms) of what is in trash bin should go to the landfill, recyclable, or compostable. For this, we used a generic hand-held luggage scale.
Order of weigh-in: paper (if any), then the plastic and metal recycling (if any), then the “landfill” materials excluding food waste, and finally the food waste (as it is messiest, it always is last to be weighed). All categories are weighed separately, emptying the bag of each before filling it in with the next category of materials.
The final weights prove there’s work to be done in waste management: over half of what is in the landfill bin could have been recycled in an adjacent bin.
The four filth foragers found, over the course of that night and every other iteration (7 total), that separation of specific waste items is challenging. With many discarded products made with a combination of materials, such as cardboard and plastic and metal, or paper products coated in a film that might have been plastic or wax, the task of waste management becomes bewildering.
After the first night of auditing, and confirmed in the following 6 nights, they were pleasantly surprised to find that, if all waste were disposed of in its proper place (paper, metal, glass and rigid plastic recycled, non-rigid plastic in the landfill), and if there were a food waste only bin (to be turned into compost), then less than 5% of total materials disposed would have been legitimate landfill waste by NYC standards. That’s a number that reads like progress, like a cleaner, greener, more sustainable city. That’s a number with impact.
In other parts of the waste stream, custodial services commonly get complaints that the bathrooms are dirty and yet most administrators on campus are not willing to switch to hand dryers and in general paper towels are seen as more effective, convenient, and sanitary by users. This was substantiated by a survey conducted by the Net Impact team. Students and faculty were asked to about preference between paper towels and hand dryers, whether they were aware that one was more environmentally friendly, cost-effective, and hygienic than the other, and whether they would switch if environmental, cost and health information was available to them. 50% of survey respondents thought that paper towels are more environmentally friendly than hand dryers or indicated that they did not know. But 67% said they would change their behavior.
As another media blow up on the health impact of hand dryers rolled through the US, a team of SUMA Net Impact students (Keren Kuperman, Abdulla Alishaq, and William Teng) was working diligently to see how Columbia University can reduce paper towel use. The team reviewed research and calculations published on lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of hand dryers and paper towels and calculated cost savings based on actual cost and consumption data provided by Custodial Services. They found that hand dryers emitted less than 15% of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than paper towels (the university purchases 100% recycled content paper towels). The university can also save over half of their monthly expense by switching to hand dryers. So what about that germ-spewing hand dryer warning in the media? Well, published studies on paper towels being more hygienic than hand dryers come from the medical field (hospitals and medical schools), where the utmost care is needed in keeping the facilities and hands clean. But for an average person, to say that hand dryers are dangerous is overkill. In New York City, as soon as you washed your hands, you probably already came in contact with doors, handrails, and surfaces that are covered in far more germs.
Net Impact is working with the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Custodial Services to develop signs that provide environmental information to try to reduce paper towel consumption on campus. Don’t worry, paper towels are not going away, but please do your part and use fewer paper towels.
Simultaneously, project team members Stephanie Hoyt and Sylwia Zieba interviewed the waste manager at Facilities, manager of Custodial Services, the Sustainability team at Columbia, others working to improve recycling on campus, and other higher education institutions. What they found was a complex system of waste management with many players that don’t have a platform to collect and share information. They began building an Excel-based dashboard to track waste tonnage provided by the NYC Department of Sanitation.
Net Impact is planning to work with the Office of Environmental Stewardship to gather other diverted waste data to add to the spreadsheet and to make the input more streamlined. The goal is for the data collection and dashboard system to go online in the future for better collaboration and transparency.
Here were our takeaways and thoughts:
Success in Unified Communication: The nuance and detail of waste disposal in Manhattan are, surprisingly and unfortunately, complicated. Unifying the communication is a key driver to motivating engagement. The rules are complicated and always changing, and the problem is massive. The waste management issue will continue to be evolving and as long as we are moving forward in improvements, then we are in the right place.
You Can Only Manage What You Measure: In the Sustainability Management program, students constantly hear an adaptation of the famous saying by Peter Drucker that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. After working with the Office of Environmental Stewardship in the fall of 2017, SUMA Net Impact members realized that Columbia University’s waste management and the sustainability teams needed a centralized system to track and measure waste diversion rates on campus. But before we can even tackle building a system, we needed a better understanding of how waste is managed on campus and whether there are peer universities with successful waste diversion programs that we can learn from.
Paper Towels vs. Hand Dryers: Every month 15 tons (equivalent to almost 1150 miles of paper towels if unrolled) of paper towels are ordered and used on the Morningside Campus. That is a significant cost for the university, not to mention the cost of labor associated with collecting the used paper towels and cleaning bathrooms that have been littered with paper towels.