Sam Bennett, a first-year M.B.A. student at U of T, along with his classmates, Lucy Yang, Matthew Frehlich, Gotham Rakmachandran, and Lucas Siow have partnered up to form Moto: an alternative fuel source for refugees.

Upon research, Bennett and his team have found that currently, refugees in the sub-Saharan African region leave their camps for hours at a time simply to find firewood to cook with, leaving the refugees at risk of being sexually assaulted. The condition of the refugees worsens, as the area surrounding their camps are often deforested, since the demand for firewood is high.

“We thought if we can eliminate the need to leave the camp […] we can do something about the sexual assault problems and the environmental problems, and then give time back to these people who are leaving their families hours at a time. So that’s how we started looking into alternative fuel sources,” says Bennett.

Their proposed solution? Moto —which is a Swahili term meaning fire—is an alternative fuel source that can burn for up to an hour, and is made from coffee grounds, wax, and sugar. Bennett states that the coffee grounds are collected from a local Starbucks. The fuel-making process involves drying the coffee grounds for about two hours, and then creating a fire log, which takes another 15 minutes.

This project will be entered as a proposal for the annual Hult Prize Competition, which is an initiative that acts a start-up accelerator for social entrepreneurship. It brings together the brightest college and university students from around the globe to solve the world’s most pressing issues. Winning proposals are awarded the prestigious $1 million Hult Prize.

For the 2017 Hult Prize competition, former president Bill Clinton challenged participants to focus on “restoring the rights and dignity of people and societies who may be, or are forced into motion due to social injustices, politics, economic pressures, climate change, and war.” The challenge has been titled as “Refugees —Reawakening Human Potential.”

“Gotham [and I] met by chance on the very first day of school, and I think we were surprised coming into an M.B.A., where we were just randomly seated next to another person [who] was [also] passionate about social and environmental endeavours. Right from that day, we started discussing the Hult [prize] and worked on forming a team over the next little while,” says Bennett.

The team then worked together in forming what is now known as Moto.

Last December, U of T held a quarterfinal qualifying round for the Hult Prize Competition at the Rotman School. Each participating teams had to include three U of T students (i.e. undergrads, Master’s, or Ph.D. students). The contestants were given six minutes to come up with an idea on how to restore rights and dignity to 10 million refugees by 2020. The winning team would proceed to the regional finals (in March 2017).

“You can imagine a problem that massive—to shrink it down into six minutes is a difficult [task],” says Bennett.

However, Bennet and his team have faced a few roadblocks along the way.

“None of us have legit experience in a refugee camp. We are generally a privileged group of people, and trying to get secondary research is one thing, but really talking to refugees and trying to learn their experience as closely as we can is another,” says Bennett.

To overcome this, Bennett and his team have reached out to several refugee houses in Toronto, and are being put into contact with the refugees in order to understand their experiences more.

“Another roadblock [is that] with developing a project for another continent comes many cultural and logistic questions. We’ve never shipped in great quantities anything to Kenya, which is where we are planning to ship, and we don’t have a great understanding of what the tariffs will be, what the road conditions are, what the seasonality is like—just thinking through the whole process is all new to us,” says Bennett.

Moto achieved good remarks as they won the local competition, and will now be moving on to the finals held in Shanghai, China. If Moto prevails in the finals, it will be a hopeful prospect for refugees in sub-Saharan Africa as an alternative fuel source, which is not only sustainable, but also has the potential to decrease the instances of sexual assault and deforestation.

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