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UCL students tackle food poverty with social enterprise and win prestigious $1m prize

An idea developed by a group of UCL students tackles food poverty and empowers Southeast Asian farmers. Winning $1 million of seed funding, Rice Inc is set to revolutionise the way food is produced.

12 November 2018

Rice poverty

Hundreds of millions of tonnes of rice goes to waste every year in Southeast Asia because of inadequate post-harvest rice drying practices. With spoilage rates of up to 30%, farmers are not reaching their full earning potential and are often living in poverty. Simultaneously, food that could be feeding the world’s ever-growing population is going to waste.

Four UCL students hailing from Malaysia, Laos and Hong Kong collaborated to come up with a solution.

The idea

Many Southeast Asian rice farmers cannot afford the drying technology needed to reduce rice wastage. So BSc Biomedical Sciences students Kisum Chan and Lincoln Lee, Julia Vannaxay (BSc Statistics and Management for Business) and Vannie Koay (BSc Economics) came up with the idea for Rice Inc – a social enterprise that provides access to this technology.

The social enterprise will build leading-edge drying technology on farmers’ land, enabling farmers to dry their rice for a service fee. After drying, Rice Inc will help farmers store the rice, wait for off-peak prices and sell the rice. Working in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Rice Inc will increase the value of farmers’ rice harvests and generate maximum prices for the rice.

Journey to the $1 million Hult Prize

Kisum, Lincoln, Julia and Vannie applied for the Hult Prize – brought into UCL for the first time in 2018 by the UCL Business Society. The 2018 Hult Prize challenge was to build a sustainable, scalable social enterprise that harnesses the power of energy to transform the lives of 10 million people. The Hult Prize is the world’s largest platform for the creation and launch of sustainable startups emerging from universities, backed by former US President Bill Clinton.

To ready them for the competition, UCL Innovation & Enterprise provided mentorship and financial assistance to enable these student entrepreneurs to attend the Hult Prize Summer Accelerator. The team also received hours of expert guidance on pitching and other business skills from UCL Innovation & Enterprise and the UCL Business Society. The UCL Entrepreneurs Society VC Fund provided Rice Inc with non-equity seed capital. The student entrepreneurs also received support from Dr Dave Chapman (UCL School of Management), Mascha Samkova (UCL Hult Prize Campus Director), and external mentors including the Hult Prize’s Professor Evangelos Markopoulos and Business Coach Ms Athina Kafetsiou.

Rice Inc CEO Lincoln Lee said: “The very people growing rice are the ones left behind by the industry and society. We wanted to change that and thanks to the support we received from UCL, we were able to develop an idea that could transform society in Southeast Asia.”

Winners of the Hult Prize 2018, Kisum Chan, Lincoln Lee, Julia Vannaxay and Vannie Koay, with President Bill Clinton
The Rice Inc team beat 200,000 other ideas to win a chance to pitch at the Hult Prize global finals. In September 2018, they subsequently won the $1 million prize, which was presented by President Bill Clinton at the UN. With pilot schemes implemented in Malaysia and Myanmar already, Rice Inc will use the seed funding to develop the idea further. Their eventual aim is to end food poverty in Southeast Asia.


Dr Celia Caulcott, Vice-Provost (Enterprise), UCL Innovation & Enterprise, said: “This is a superb achievement for these UCL students. They're not only a shining example of the entrepreneurial spirit that runs throughout UCL, they exemplify how solving the world’s most pressing challenges can also make good business sense.”

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