Open Market is the impressive brainchild of Saadan Sulehri, a business and engineering student who is expected to graduate from The University of British Columbia (UBC) in December 2016. Sulehri was first inspired during his time in Pakistan to make a difference, and it was at the University of British Columbia (UBC) where he received the help he needed to figure out how to make his aspirations a reality. Starting just a year and a half ago, Sulehri developed Open Market as a sub-project to his larger endeavour, LET’S International Charitable Association (LET’S ICA), which he founded in 2013.
Open Market aims to give networking infrastructure to local producers who live in developing communities. With access to these wireless networks, producers are given the chance to sell their creations and make a larger profit off of an international market. Open Market also helps provide these communities with better tools and skills to create and develop their businesses and market branding.
Sulehri describes the social purpose of his social ventures:
“Our primary focus is on promoting education, medical resources and economic development in developing communities. We target these issues using the technical devices that we design.”
Open Market’s concept builds off of LET’S use of Takhti, which was first used to give students a way to access all their course materials in one convenient place. Takhti means “a wooden plank” in Urdu and Arabic. This is significant because students write on these wooden planks in underprivileged schools throughout Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh as they cannot afford to purchase notebooks. At the end of each class, students must erase whatever they wrote in order to make space on their tablet for the next class. The Takhti module will change these students lives, giving students their own electronic tablet (or a similar device) to access their own course material.
The Takhti module is a small electronic device that contains a small computer called “Raspberry Pi.” Takhti stands out amongst anything that has been done before because of two major reasons. Firstly, it bypasses the complications of installing internet connection in the targeted areas. It extends online resources to communities with limited infrastructure and no access to the internet, connecting remote areas, up to 5Km apart, that don’t have instant connectivity. Takhti, currently, has the connectivity range of up to 5Km, LET’S hopes to increase this to 10 Km within next few months. Secondly, Takhti’s unique ability to connect and share resources with other neighboring Takhti nodes (within the specified range) allows the network to expand its resources and its range with the addition of each multi-purpose node. Thus, making the network scalable. Takhti requires very little power, fewer hardware components, and is the cheapest viable medium for dispensing valuable resources in these countries.
Due to Takhti’s success during its first test run in Pakistan, Sulehri gained many learnings and connections that inspired him to start Open Market. Sulehri hopes to harness Takhti’s potential in an effort to enable local artisans and entrepreneurs to sell online and access global markets. This project removes the need for a middleman, and its goal is to allow producers to keep 85-90% of the profits that go toward further expanding their businesses, and the rest goes to supporting LET’S.
Open Market has already tested Takhti with artisans who make handmade handbags in Uganda and traditional clothing in Pakistan. Now, he is looking to expand his project by using the device to let local artisans sell handcrafted furniture on global markets. Sulehri assesses the impact of Open Market and Takhti by having different committees and advisory boards in place which consist of people who are most impacted by their venture. Feedback is gathered from these groups on a monthly basis.
Sulehri has already deployed Takhti in selected areas of Pakistan, Uganda, and Rwanda with promising results. As for Open Market, it is in the midst of attaining funds. So far, Sulehri says that he’s had investors donate their services to his endeavors, but they are currently looking to attain funding of $150,000 to $200,000 to start the first year run of this project. There is great potential with this project, and even though Sulehri still has a lot more to do, signs of success are starting to show. Recently Takhti won the McEwen Family Quality of Life Prize, which will give this project $25,000 to go toward its research and development. Sulehri and his team are currently in the process of filing patents for Takhti.
For Sulehri, another exciting aspect of LET’S momentum is his ability to engage fellow students. He gives us some inspiring words in regard to what encouraged him to pursue social entrepreneurship and innovation in the first place:
“[I]n my first year I was always told that there’s not much a 17 year old kid can accomplish in general, not to speak of working towards resolving some of biggest humanitarian challenges worldwide. I always knew that cannot be true, and I believe you can do whatever you want, at any given age, provided that you’re willing to give it your all. I’m glad that I did not give up, instead gave it my all – it’s led me to this point. And now we actually have a project in LET’S, called UBC Faculties Project through which we engage students with our international projects.”
Sulehri has since been able to partner with various faculties at UBC to offer students such experiences, including the faculties of Applied Science, Sauder, Education and Kinesiology. A part of this project is LET’S much valued partnership with UBC’s Social Enterprise Club, a club driven by the mission to “create changemakers.” The club holds various events and socials (including the annual Social Enterprise Conference) to encourage students to utilize social entrepreneurship to make a good difference in the world. Sulehri has worked with the Club to put together a team of 20+ students, from various faculties, currently working on analyzing the socio-economic impact of Takhti and Open Market in the targeted communities. Sulehri’s goal for this project is to introduce real-life inter-disciplinary humanitarian projects for students, destabilizing the norm in which most university students work solely within their faculties.
Sulehri’s efforts to bring practical experience opportunities to post-secondary students are a welcome addition to the growing trend of providing budding student social entrepreneurs the out-of-class lessons they need.
Increasingly, we are seeing that some of the greatest advances in social entrepreneurship and social innovation are coming from students. These stories are being lived, but they are rarely told. As a result, RECODE and the Trico Charitable Foundation are collaborating to survey and interview leading examples of Canadian post-secondary students who are developing social enterprises (for profit or not for profit).
This work seeks to build on RECODE’s survey activities with Emory University in Atlanta, and the insights from the Scaled Purpose and Mount Royal University report “Where to Begin: How Social Innovation is Emerging Across Canadian Campuses”.
It is hoped this research will inform our efforts to help Canada’s post-secondary institutions lead the way in supporting student social entrepreneurs and social innovators. But more than that, it will lead to a series of blogs capturing the students’ journeys. These stories will “reveal how process and purpose can converge to power a new economy for social and ecological impact” and, hopefully, inspire and inform social entrepreneurs within and beyond our Universities.