By Lynne Weiss
June 26, 2012
Charlotte Wang of MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM) and her teammates received a Community Choice award of $1,500 in MIT’s annual IDEAS Competition and Global Challenge. SMART (Sustainable Management of Agricultural Resources and Trade) Coops entry is a mobile banking and payment platform to connect farmers in the Philippines to their agricultural cooperatives and in turn to banks, input suppliers, government agencies, and crop buyers via SMS text messaging.
The Philippines, with a young and educated workforce, has a growing economic presence. Agricultural production increased by 4.3% in 2011, but poor infrastructure limits agricultural efficiency and farmers typically earn about $4 a day, much less than their counterparts in China or Brazil. There are about twelve million farmers in the Philippines, with about 85% of them considered small. Agricultural cooperatives allow farmers to act as a single entity when applying for loans, buying inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides, selling their products, and investing in infrastructure such as refrigerated warehouses, rice mills, or fish-canning facilities. Even so, the network of small-scale farmers is fragmented and farmers often pay as much as 20% interest on loans. The goal of SMART Coops is to provide farmers and their cooperatives with tools that will give them more power in the supply chain.
MIT’s IDEAS (Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action, and Service) Competition is an invention and entrepreneurship contest that rewards projects for underserved communities. Now in its 11th year, it is known as “the Oscars of social impact at MIT,” according to Alison Hynd, one of the 2012 presenters. The Community Choice awards were given to the three teams to receive the most on-line votes.
Wang heard about SMART Coops when Danny Castonguay, Sloan ’13, sent an e-mail to the Sloan community asking for help from people experienced with start-ups. Wang said she was immediately attracted to the opportunity to use her background with strategy, policy and processes on a project to aid people in the developing world. Prior to entering the SDM program, Wang worked for Washington State to implement a new HR system and bring lean processes to state-controlled liquor stores. At MIT, she was part of the PolyChroma team that won the Berkeley-Stanford Green Entrepreneurship Competition in 2011, and she and her husband Zhiyong Wang, SDM ’11, entered the 2011 IDEAS Competition and Global Challenge with their Inner Mongolia Sustainability Project (InnerLong) which seeks to minimize soil erosion in Mongolia through sustainable energy development. Wang said she responded to Castonguay’s e-mail right away and met with him and Leah Capitan, another member of the SMART Coops team.
“These efforts are never a one-person thing,” Wang said. She explained that her background in processes, energy sustainability, agriculture, and social policy was useful to the SMART Coops team, but that Leah Capitan brought the necessary knowledge of and connections to the Philippines. Castonguay and Capitan will spend the summer of 2012 in the Philippines to develop a collaboration between SMART Coops and the University of the Philippines in Manila through MIT AITI (Accelerating Information Technology Innovation).
Wang, who received her degree from SDM in June, said she never expected to work on projects such as SMART Coops, PolyChroma, and the InnerLong project when she entered SDM. But she recalled that during the first week of SDM, Pat Hale, Director of the System Design and Management Fellows Program, urged Wang and her peers not to limit their thoughts to what they had done in the past or imagined they would do, and Wang said that the SDM courses gave her a strong foundation for branching out into new areas of research. “They push you,” Wang said. “Courses like System Architecture are really hard! My brain was aching when I took itâ€”but it gave me the tools for in-depth thinking about the details of a project and at the same time the ability to keep pulling back to look at the big picture.”
Wang will continue work on the Inner Mongolia Sustainability Project she and her husband began while she was in SDM. This summer she will be a Senior Fellow in the first Harvard China SEED (Social responsibility, Empathy, Empowerment, and Dedication) Camp this summer. The Harvard China SEED Camp connects Chinese students studying abroad to networks of social innovators and entrepreneurs within China. Meanwhile, Wang starts a new start-up on energy management, EnerLong, an innovative technology design and consulting firm, providing comprehensive advice on the sustainable development of the city, conducting intelligent energy management system design, operation services and smart urban design, based on the city’s energy, transportation and community platform. This will help China energy efficiency demand and development with rapid economic and urban growth. Wang hopes her future will give her a chance to teach as well as entrepreneurial opportunities. “I envision myself as a bridge between the United States and China,” she said. “I hope to see EnerLong succeed and would love to share my experience with others.”
Chunguang Charlotte Wang