Kibera Working Group gaining accolades (w/video)
August 5, 2011
By: Janna Widdifield 

DU’s Kibera Working Group (KWG) was selected as one of the 15 best student innovation teams in the country to participate in Open Minds — a video competition and exhibition hosted by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

A collaborative effort among DU faculty, graduate students, the Denver Southeast Rotary Club and Nairobi-based water and sanitation organizations, the KWG aims to improve water and sanitation conditions in Kibera, Kenya. With more than 1 million people, Kibera is one of the world’s largest slums.

KWG’s video showed a “three-legged stool approach” to water and sanitation solutions. The symbolic stool’s seat represented a 20-by-30-foot water station, equipped with water basins, toilets and showers. The seat was supported by three legs: governance, business planning and health and hygiene promotion.

The three-legged stool idea was the result of field research two DU faculty and nine DU graduate students conducted in Kibera last summer.

While in Kibera, two of the DU representatives — Jay Matlack (MBA ’10) and Ursula Miniszewski, a DU grad student — learned that other groups had previously presented Kibera with solutions, but they weren’t sustainable.

“Once you get down there, you realize how complex of an issue it is,” Matlack says. “You can’t just think one can make a huge impact. It is an ongoing process and needs ongoing help.”

Matlack, who has worked in investment banking, brought a business and financial perspective to the team.

“Many projects in Kenya are grant-based, which is fine, but what happens is a lot these customers are treated as beneficiaries rather than just customers,” he says. “We found this to be a very big issue because if they are ‘beneficiaries,’ they are given the facilities and tools, but they are not taught how to use them in the long term.”

For the challenge, KWG found it difficult to communicate its innovative and creative model in a short video format.

“We were forced to articulate the key concepts in two-and-a-half minutes,” says Miniszewski, adding that they didn’t enlist the help of film experts and were supposed to create the video themselves.

At a March 26 event at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., teams in the challenge played videos, displayed pictures and set up interactive activities that pertained to their inventions or innovations. Although KWG did not win the competition, Matlack and Miniszewski enjoyed attending and interacting with the other teams.

Open Minds was the second major competition KWG has participated in.

Five members from the group presented their water solution model at the Hult Global Case Challenge in San Francisco on March 5. The challenge is a partnership between the Hult International Business School and water.org.

The competition brought university students together to present innovative solutions to the global clean water crisis. KWG placed second in the regional competition and missed the opportunity to advance to the final competition in New York for a chance at a $1 million prize.

“Every time we present the project in public, the students learn how to better articulate the model and what we are doing,” says Renée Botta, KWG faculty chair and associate professor of communication. “These are great experiences to get them out there networking and meeting other people who are doing similar kinds of work, especially since many of them want to work in the field of development.”

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