The first thing Jeff Evans, a recent graduate in entrepreneurship, did when he started his senior project was to locate Malawi on a map.

He and engineering students Travis Meyer, Kyle Kraemer, and Dan Good have since learned a lot about this African country, third poorest in the world, and developed a treadle pump they hope will make a positive difference for people there. They traveled to Malawi in March to test their product. Working with Peter Wyeth, associate scientist in International Programs, Trent Bunderson, associate director of International Programs, and faculty advisors Denny Davis and Jerman Rose, the team was part of a unique entrepreneurship class sponsored by the College of Business and College of Engineering and Architecture that requires interdisciplinary student groups to design products and develop a potential business venture plan.

The treadle pump that farmers currently use in Malawi is basically a “stairmaster that sucks up water,” says Evans. Although not exactly high-tech, the pump dramatically reduces irrigation time, compared to using buckets, and can mean the difference between health and malnutrition for poor families.

The pumps are mostly manufactured in India and made of steel, which is imported with high tariffs. Costing about $100, they consume half the annual income of the average Malawian. The farmers have to move the heavy pumps during the day and take them home each night to prevent theft. The Malawian government wants a treadle pump that could be manufactured within the country and maintained with easily replaceable parts.

The students worked to develop a lightweight pump that can be made locally. They built their pump primarily out of PVC, commonly available in Malawi. They worked with two nonprofit agencies, Total Land Care and the Land Resource Center, to learn about the business culture—all the factors that will determine their product’s feasibility and usefulness. These agencies were absolutely essential to the project’s success, says Davis, helping the students find materials, conduct testing, and make contacts for manufacturing facilities, delivery systems, and marketing.

“How do you do marketing in Malawi?” wonders Evans. “Here we have whole [academic] departments that study how to market to Americans, but it’s difficult with our limited access to know what they do in Malawi.”

The students presented their project both in Washington State University and University of Washington business-plan competitions. Judges at the UW competition gave the group a special $2,000 award for “social responsibility focus.” They also each made a personal contribution, encouraging audience members to do the same.

The Malawi project is one of a few student projects that has potential to take off and solve a real human problem, says Davis. It brings together skills and experiences that 21st-century engineers and entrepreneurs need—hands-on learning, entrepreneurship, product development, and global experience. Taking these projects to the next step will require formal funding mechanisms for product and business development, he adds. Travis Meyer has recently formed a non-profit organization, hoping to raise funds to make the project viable. Davis and Rose are seeking funding for a second student team.

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