When Idea Meets Innovation: Roshni Biswas and Anurag Saha Roy at the United Nations
When it comes to overachievers, NIT Rourkela just can’t seem to have enough. Roshni Biswas and Anurag Saha Roy recently added their names to this virtually never-ending list of alumni achievements. The fresh graduates participated in the Unite Ideas Summer of Solutions challenge and emerged as absolute winners. This week, Monday Morning brings you yet another story of idea and innovation that will surely excite the engineering enthusiast within you. Excerpts from the interview.
Monday Morning: Can you walk us through the process of participating in the Unite ideas Summer of Solutions challenge and your collaboration with the United Nations Development Program?
Roshni Biswas: The Unite Ideas Summer of Solutions is a joint effort of the UN Envoy on Youth and the UN Technology Innovation Labs. It brings together communities from around the world to develop solutions for various open challenges in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals. During the summer of 2019, we participated in the Open Climate Informatics Challenge, conceptualized and built Wikilimo, a platform to provide access to localized climate & agricultural information for rural livelihoods.
Anurag Saha Roy: We competed against hundreds of teams worldwide and emerged the winners following months of active development and assessment by judges from UNDP.
We were then flown in to attend the UN Youth Climate Summit where I pitched Wikilimo to a panel of judges from the US tech ecosystem and emerged the winner of the UN Youth Entrepreneurship Pitch Competition. Subsequently, I was invited to speak at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit where I addressed the UN General Assembly on the need for youth entrepreneurship for a sustainable climate movement.
MM: How enriching was your experience with the United Ideas Summer of Solutions Challenge and what difficulties did you face participating in such a huge international event?
RB: From a professional standpoint, Wikilimo was a great learning experience for me, as I was working with several new tools and frameworks and building APIs for integrating cross-platform systems. Many of these languages were completely new to me and I had to pick up best practices and development techniques on the go, creating a fairly complex open-source system that would work seamlessly even on very-low bandwidth or offline applications. Our solution was going to be judged on alignment with the challenge objectives as well as sound analysis of its commercialization aspects. I believe our complementary set of skills greatly aided in ensuring a wholesome product.
ASR: I think one of our biggest challenges with Wikilimo was the fact that we were both working full-time jobs while also simultaneously balancing other commitments. A 12-hour time difference doesn’t really help when you are working together for the first time and I am glad we used Slack and Trello extensively for managing our tasks and progress. Even though I grew up in the rural suburbs within the Gangetic agri-plains, it is also important to note that we were building products for a customer base in rural sub-Saharan Africa, one that we had never interacted with. So understanding our users’ perspectives from second-hand information was quite challenging too.
MM: How do you think common people or students who have similar ideas should proceed and how can they represent their product at such international events worldwide?
ASR: I guess both Roshni and I have discussed this before when we spoke to Monday Morning and we can not stress this enough that it is very crucial to always apply yourself to every opportunity you find out there (even when you feel you might not have a good shot at it). And in today’s world, social media is just as important as a platform for professional development as are career fairs or job portals. I have found collaborators from across the world, new job opportunities, grad school interviews and so much more just by keeping my eyes open and maintaining an active presence on social media. Several scholarship portals also aggregate such international competitions for youth representation and it is a good practice to look out for prospective opportunities.
MM: How do you feel that your internships, projects and work experience helped in this case?
ASR: When I started working on Wikilimo, I had just graduated from the National University of Singapore’s deep-tech incubator program GRIP, where I raised seed funding for my other startup Hamlit, which focuses on two-wheeler driver safety and assistance solutions. I think my learnings from GRIP greatly aided my work on Wikilimo, particularly in analyzing and developing comprehensive market studies, business models and revenue solutions. My previous experience with working on open-source projects where collaborating members are situated in widely separated geographies also came in handy in this case.
RB: My experience at participating at GapSummit 2018 as a Leader of Tomorrow at the University of Cambridge gave me lots of insight on How to build on startup ideas, How to make an elevator pitch and how to build a pitch deck. These skills came in very handy while developing the submission for Wikilimo. I attended a Doctoral Consortium on Computational Sustainability at Carnegie Mellon University later in 2019 which gave me lots of perspective from other researchers working in relevant spaces on building and pitching products for a sustainable future.
Wikilimo was also a part of Y Combinator Startup School and successfully completing the entire 10 weeks of YC-SUS greatly helped in filling up my gaps in understanding how to iterate through the process of understanding your user and product-market fit, satisfying unit economics and building a scalable solution.
MM: Can you give us an insight into your product Wikilimo and its functioning and how it aims to simplify the life of its users?
RB: Wikilimo is a one-stop enabler for communities situated in regions of little/no internet connectivity whose livelihoods depend greatly on agriculture. Built into an intuitive and lightweight mobile application and also accessible through offline media such as SMS, USSD, and Voice facilities, the platform crowdsources weather and pest reports from the users. Thus harnessing the sheer power of citizen science, this collected data is leveraged with in-depth analysis and interpretation, and further supplemented with predictions on pricing, pests, and weather from national agriculture and meteorological services. Extensive analysis of existing satellite imagery for climate change modeling and analytics bridges gaps and helps answer questions regarding severe weather phenomena that are now frequently arising due to the changing climate.
Notifications and alerts with hyperlocal weather forecasts, actionable insights and expert-backed tailored suggestions enhance and equip the farmers with more informed decision making to protect crops and undertake agricultural planning for activities like fertilization and irrigation. Besides detailed preventive and remedial steps to counter pest outbreaks and erratic weather conditions, the platform also broadcasts information from government departments with regard to warnings, subsidies, and schemes. Seamless local language support helps farmers from different regions to chat and complete business transactions with other users within Wikilimo. The platform is in active development with an open-source MVP available for download and use in pilot testing.
MM: Were there certain goals or standards that your design was required to meet?
ASR: The OpenCI Platform challenge had some clearly outlined deliverables which included a working software platform, a video demonstration of the product along with a detailed business plan outlining the product-market fit, revenue model as well as initial partnership and scaling-up strategies.
RB: All of the content was intended to be open-source and licensed under CC-BY 4.0 which allows for any party to further share, copy, redistribute, adapt, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially. We had to ensure our video covered sufficient technical aspects of the product while also being approachable to the non-technical audience in terms of need, market and business fit.
MM: How was your product idea different from others and what valuable trait of your product do you think made you the winner of the UN Youth Entrepreneurship competition?
RB: The part where Wikilimo makes a tangible, clear impact is how it ensures last-mile access to data and insights without the need for any new hardware or infrastructure upgrade. There are several products out there that make use of high-end smartphones or IoT networks to provide last-mile crowdsourced data but are limited in their reach due to bottlenecks of cost and infra-support. Wikilimo is a product that can be deployed tomorrow and one could use it in any remote location on a basic feature phone by simply making a call or sending a text message.
ASR: We undertook a very extensive review of existing products to understand what works and what doesn’t, particularly the gaps in technology and commercialization. This allowed us to create a very sound strategy regarding our business model and partnerships. This coupled with the fact that we had a fully-functional product ready for demonstration at the time of submission really helped our case with the judges from UNDP.
MM: Who was your mentor in this project? Did you seek any guidance from any faculty members?
RB: Not really. We took this project up by ourselves without any external guidance or support from faculty whatsoever.
MM: How was your experience sharing the UN General Assembly stage with Secretary-General and other youth climate activists at the Climate Action Summit 2019? How do you think this Climate Action Summit will influence youth and bring any change to the already existing situation?
ASR: I will be honest in admitting that most of the Climate Week in New York City was a surreal and serendipitous journey, to say the least. It was a humbling experience to share the stage with the Secretary-General at the UN General Assembly, emphasizing the role of Youth Entrepreneurship in fighting Climate Change. Much of the climate action discourse has so far been focussed on national & international policy and mitigation efforts. I think it is important to also prepare for a future where climate change is inevitable. Youth entrepreneurship has been especially effective in this direction, building several climate-resilient products.
And let’s face it, while it might be a good media headline to have privileged teenagers miss school for over-dramatic protests, it doesn’t really help the cause. The focus instead needs to be on data & climate scientists and on integrating sustainable practices into every business venture.
MM: What are your future plans regarding Wikilimo?
ASR: We are actively building Wikilimo and more importantly, exploring partnerships with several public and private bodies in different geographies. We have not yet raised any funding so that is also something we need to figure out in the near future, but at the moment most of our energies are completely focussed on technology development. We are expanding and refining the feature set of the Wikilimo platform including live language translations and integration with chat & payment services. If anyone wants to work on a cross-platform open-source climate analytics project, please feel free to reach out to me or Roshni.
MM: Can you share your overall experience at the Youth Climate Summit 2019?
RB: When we started working on Wikilimo, we did not really expect to end up at the Youth Climate Summit. The summit was, of course, a very enjoyable experience, interacting with climate activists and social entrepreneurs from around the world.
The discourse at the summit was truly diverse & global and it was heartening to be able to witness first-hand how young people around the world have taken the lead and are changing the narrative on how we fight climate change. The entire team at the UN Office of the Secretary-General for the Envoy on Youth was extremely supportive in ensuring we had a pleasant experience and got as much exposure and networking as possible. To represent youth from around the world, to be at the center of the climate action movement and be able to learn and share with the smartest people of our generation was a truly life-changing 7 days.
Team MM congratulates the founders of Wikilimo on their much-deserved win and wishes them all the very best for developing their product further.