MBAs are not just about profits

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am


From her Mid-Levels home, Cambridge MBA graduate Akanksha Hazari is quietly working on a project to tackle a pressing problem in the developing world - access to clean water.

Project m.Paani was the crowning achievement for Hazari and five other Master of Business Administration graduates at the university's Judge Business School, topping the finals of a global competition that challenged students to provide clean water and sanitation to 100 million people living in developing countries in five years.

Now, the victory will give them the funds - the prize money of US$1 million - to test out their winning idea: to leverage the high usage of mobile phones in slums in countries such as China, India, Brazil, Nigeria and Kenya to bring water to those in need.

'Mobile penetration is very high among the poor,' Hazari says. 'In India, of the total revenue from mobile phone expenditure, 51 per cent comes from the poor, who tend to spend half of their total income on the phone.

'For the poor, the phone is like a lifeline, an access to mobile banking, a way to get more business and make more income.'

Hazari is one of a number of business graduates intent on making a difference to the world, and in the process forsaking the climb up the corporate ladder. Their sound understanding of business and marketing gives them an edge in aiming for social goals without compromising profitability.

Hazari's group proposes that every time a call is made, 'water points' are added to a common pool of points chalked up by members of a community, like in a corporate loyalty programme. The community can then cash in the points from telecommunications providers to fund sanitation projects.

The proposal won the day at the 2nd Annual Hult Global Case Challenge in New York in April, emerging top among teams from six universities in the final round, out of more than 1,000 participating teams.

Hakeem Belo-Osagie, chairman of telecoms operator Etisalat Nigeria, sums up the appeal of the project: 'm.Paani identifies and connects fundamental needs with market trends to build an innovative and attractive business model for telecommunications companies in developing countries.' It was 'an innovative and credible business approach with a healthy dose of desire to change the world', says Hans Peter Brondmo, head of social software at mobile-phone maker Nokia, calling the project 'social entrepreneurship at its best'.

Hazari is now drafting the business plan and developing the technology platform, with hopes of launching m.Paani, a Hong Kong-based social enterprise, next year.

She understands the ins and outs of social assistance, having served for three years on the board of an NGO in Washington. 'Social enterprises that are profit-driven but development-focused are much more likely to be sustainable and scalable. They have to be, if you are going to have an impact,' Hazari says.

Sharing such ideals is German MBA graduate Florian Bennhold, who wants to promote the use of electric vehicles in Hong Kong. He completed an MBA at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Bennhold is spreading the message among transport operators of the benefits of electric vehicles, backing the Environmental Protection Department's HK$300 million pilot green transport fund to encourage the adoption of innovative technologies to improve roadside air quality and reduce greenhouse gases.

'People are always very interested in understanding the economics of different solutions, for example, the costs of electric vehicles and how you get additional benefits out of them that you don't get out of gas; how you can make it a viable business proposition for a company - and that is where the MBA training comes in very useful,' he says. 'I learned how to build a business case; it does not matter whether it is for your own company. The same principles and arguments apply.'