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12/11/2018 – Sustainability / Agriculture / Rice / Waste / Asia

Hult prize: Post-harvest prosperity


A team of university students have created a business aimed at disrupting the traditional rice supply chain in South East Asia – boosting crop quality and profitability for farmers and dramatically reducing waste – with the goal of transforming the lives of 10 million people. Food & Beverage Networker explores the award-winning concept.


Post-harvest loss is a pervasive issue, with an extraordinary amount of resources – from land, water and fertiliser, to labour, and capital – funnelled into cultivating food that is never eaten. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that the carbon footprint of the world’s wasted food is equivalent to 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year – more greenhouse gas emissions than any country produces overall, aside from China and the US. The report asserts that countries are missing not only the opportunity to improve food security (hundreds of millions of people across the world still go hungry every year), but also the scope to lessen the environmental impact of global food chains. 


In tackling the problem, a good place to start would be rice – the world’s most cultivated crop, and the leading staple across much of Asia.  “Coming from Malaysia, Laos and Hong Kong, where rice is the staple diet, we were shocked at how inefficient and wasteful the rice supply chain is,” said Lincoln Lee, UCL undergraduate and CEO of a rice-drying business ‘SunRice’ that has just been awarded the top prize at the annual Hult awards, held recently in New York City. 


Long-time supporter and advocate of the Hult Prize, former US President Bill Clinton, was on hand to present UCL’s winning team with a prestigious trophy and a cash prize of US$1 million seed capital for their award-winning business idea – aimed at reducing the hundreds of millions of tons of rice wasted annually. 


Democratising the rice industry 


The Hult Prize is the world’s largest platform and accelerator for the creation and launch of sustainable, impact-centred start-ups emerging from universities all over the globe. Esteemed industry leaders such as Arianna Huffington (co-founder Huffington Post), Paul Polman (Global CEO of Unilever) and Hans Vestberg (CEO of Verizon) were on the judging panel for the 2018 challenge, which centred on ‘building a sustainable, scalable social enterprise that harnessed the power of energy to transform the lives of 10 million people’.


Whittled down from 200,000 contenders, the award-winning UCL team – Lincoln Lee and Kisum Chan (both BSc Biomedical Sciences), Julia Vannaxay (MSc Statistical Science) and Vannie Koay (BSc Economics) – will use the seed capital to develop their idea further, with the goal of alleviating food poverty across South East Asia.


The aim of the business is to reduce the estimated 350 million tons of rice lost post-harvest every year by offering farmers better access to drying technology at an affordable price. The team will help create a more effective supply chain whereby rice is bought directly from farmers and dried using renewable energy – the intended result being to avoid the 20-per-cent spoilage rate that farmers would typically incur when attempting to treat the rice themselves. Globally, this leads to losses amounting to an eye-watering US$45 billion annually.


SunRice’s founders call the business “a sustainable supply chain solution dedicated to democratising the rice industry in South East Asia by increasing the amount and speed at which quality rice hits the market”. 


Alleviating poverty, boosting sustainability


Having already successfully piloted in Malaysia and Myanmar, and put a plan in place for the US$1m seed funding, the business is now looking to roll out more pilot schemes in partnership with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). In so doing, the team aims to help lift farmers out of poverty and boost the sustainability of the sector.


“In the countries where we come from, communities would collapse without rice, but the people growing the crop are the ones left behind – and through no fault of their own, the practices of these farmers are also the root cause of the waste in the supply chain,” continued Lincoln. “Due to high costs, farmers can’t access the existing technology that could solve these problems. Our goal is to change that.”


Dr Celia Caulcott, UCL Vice-Provost (Enterprise) said: “This is a superb achievement for these UCL students, and all those who worked with and supported them. They are 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.”

Next year’s Hult Prize challenge will be to develop an idea that provides meaningful jobs for 10 million young people within the next decade.


Visit: for more details.

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