Students’ baby food company aims to help refugees and their children

<p>Created by a Duke team, HaBaby seeks to provide nutrition for babies of refugees.</p>

Created by a Duke team, HaBaby seeks to provide nutrition for babies of refugees.

Senior Andrew Huang spent last summer working in the Katsikas refugee camp in northern Greece—where he observed five volunteers spending seven hours a day mashing bananas and apples to feed the camp’s approximately 100 babies.

This labor-intensive process was strenuous for the Greek camp with 1,200 refugees. In camps like Dadaab in Kenya, where the population has pushed the half-million mark, providing nutrition for about 1000 babies that are born each month strains the financial and labor limits of NGOs and humanitarian aid groups. Duke’s Hult Prize competition winner, HaBaby, seeks to provide an innovative solution to the problem while competing in the world’s largest social entrepreneurship competition.

“Babies are the most vulnerable to sickness, malnutrition and to environmental conditions of any demographic or population in refugee camps—and they are often the most overlooked,” said Huang, one of the HaBaby team's members.

HaBaby will represent Duke in the regional competition for the Hult Prize, where it will have the chance to advance to the global finals and compete for the $1 million social entrepreneurship winnings.

This year’s competition centers around a prompt that encourages participants to “build sustainable social enterprises that restore the rights and dignity of 10 million refugees by 2022.”

When Huang heard about the Hult Prize and this year’s theme last October, he was immediately interested.

“I’ve been trying to continue the type of work that I did at Katsikas in whatever capacity I can at Duke and back home, but it’s been kind of difficult to find ways to have that direct impact,” Huang said. “So when I discovered the Hult Prize, I thought it was great.”

Within a week he had connected with senior Adia Coley, a political science and Arabic major whom he met through a FOCUS program when they were first-years, and Shantanu Sharma, a master's student whom Huang had never met. The team quickly added Priyanka Venkannagari, a senior with expertise in business and finance.

“These are really enthusiastic people,” Sharma said.

They considered ideas ranging from a comic book—following the lives of 10 refugees to fill the void of positive representation of refugees in the media—to hiring resettled female refugees to make food in their home kitchens that people could order online, Huang explained.

During a Thanksgiving break Skype call, however, the team had their “eureka moment” when they thought of a way to give nutrition to children in camps while also providing employment to resettled refugees, Huang said.

HaBaby, a name that Sharma said stems from an Arabic word meaning "beloved, a friend," is first and foremost aimed at being a profitable baby food company.

“If the profits are not viable, if the sales are crap, then there is no way that you can even think about sustaining that to serve a social initiative,” Huang said.

Their business plan is to offer customizable, organic baby food to customers in the United States—a premise that Sharma explained is unique.

The profits made from the business, which will market to retail and specialty stores, will be used to subsidize the sale of the baby food to NGOs and humanitarian aid organizations in bulk for distribution in refugee camps, for a fraction of the production costs.

Huang stressed that one priority of the company will be employing resettled refugees in the business and providing resources and training to help them find various types of jobs they want.

What set the group apart at the Duke competition was their detailed financial plan, said the competition’s campus director Aashna Aggarwal, a sophomore economics major. Sharma noted that the team put a large amount of work into explaining the details of the finances and measurable impact, putting to use his and Venkannagari’s experience.

HaBaby bested four other teams in the second round of judging at Duke to advance directly to the San Francisco regional competition, which will be held the first weekend of March, where they will face approximately 60 other teams competing for one of 10 global finalist spots and one wildcard position. The field of 11 will narrow to six before the final competition, Aggarwal explained.

Another Duke team, Sawiana Enterprises, is composed entirely of first-years. Although it did not win the Duke competition, it applied directly to the Boston regional and was accepted—meaning that the University will have two entries in the pool of 300 regional finalists from around the world.

HaBaby is currently working to raise $30,000 and continue their research in preparation for the March regionals, Sharma said. Although winning the Hult Prize would accelerate the team's progress, he said that their idea is viable even if they do not win and that the exposure from the competition may bring in investors.

Huang expressed enthusiasm about the future of the company and the social entrepreneurship opportunities the competition had shown him.

“When I started out at Duke, I never thought that I would be passionate about this type of topic—this humanitarian crisis,” he said. “It’s never too late to devote your time and passion and labor to doing something that you think is meaningful.”

Bre Bradham

Bre is a senior political science major from South Carolina, and she is the current video editor, special projects editor and recruitment chair for The Chronicle. She is also an associate photography editor and an investigations editor. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief and local and national news department head. 

Twitter: @brebradham



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