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

An idea developed by 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.

Farmers in Myanmar taking part in Rice Inc's pilot project

15 July 2020

Rice Inc was founded by UCL students Kisum Chan and Lincoln Lee (BSc Biomedical Sciences) along with two other students. Their concept strives to eliminate food waste, promote sustainability and bring food security. The social enterprise is helping farmers nearly double their income by recovering rice which would otherwise be lost. 

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.

Many Southeast Asian rice farmers cannot afford the drying technology needed to reduce rice wastage. So Kisum and Lincoln came up with the idea for a social business that provides access to this technology.

Rice Inc builds leading-edge eco-dryers on farmers’ land, enabling farmers to dry their rice for a service fee. They then help farmers to store the rice, wait for off-peak prices and sell the rice. Working in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Rice Inc increases the value of farmers’ rice harvests and generates maximum prices for the rice.

Journey to the $1 million Hult Prize

Kisum, Lincoln and two other students 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 the student entrepreneurs to attend the Hult Prize Summer Accelerator. The team also received 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.

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 won the $1 million prize, which was presented by Bill Clinton at the UN. The seed funding has allowed Rice Inc to expand beyond their pilot schemes in Malaysia and Myanmar. The eventual goal is to end food poverty in Southeast Asia.
 

Supplying rice to Londoners

Rice Inc’s rice is available closer to home. Multinational food services company Sodexo offers the ethical rice in UCL’s Refectory. This partnership between Rice Inc and Sodexo was facilitated by UCL Innovation & Enterprise and UCL Estates. The general public can also buy Rice Inc’s jasmine rice directly from their website.

UCL Innovation & Enterprise continues to support Rice Inc. The startup is now resident at UCL’s entrepreneurship hub, BaseKX, where the team benefits from free office space and advice and mentoring. 

In the COVID-19 pandemic, Rice Inc could not sell their rice to businesses that were closed. This meant the rice was stored in their warehouse. Kisum and Lincoln then hit on another way of using the rice to do good. COVID-19 had caused an increased demand for food parcels and food banks. Kisum and Lincoln wanted to help the local communities where they were based, so they launched Rice Up for London. For every bag of rice that is purchased, the campaign donates another to a food charity. 

Dr Celia Caulcott, Vice-Provost (Enterprise), UCL Innovation & Enterprise, said of the Hult Prize win: “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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 Photos supplied by Rice Inc

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