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How innovative design thinking programme is shaping business ideas

 Businessman Manu Chandaria and his granddaughter, Design Minhng Program Founder Ayushi Chandaria give a talk to Students and Innovators at USIU University in Nairobi on June 22, 2023. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

When Nicholas Kioko began his adventure to create a business that would change his fortunes, cashing in on real estate opportunities was top on his mind.

He walked from company to company within the city trying his lack - hoping a door would open in the sector.

However, in his words: "I failed miserably."

The 20-year-old first-year pharmacy student at the United States International University of Africa (USIU-A) dropped the intended venture, and humbled, decided it was best to continue with his chosen line of education.

Soon after, his professor at USIU, who discovered his passion for acumen in business development, encouraged him to join the Design Thinking Program incubated within the institution.

Here, his USIU classmate Tina Akech and a friend, Matthew Thiga (astronomy and astrophysics student at the University of Nairobi) joined forces to create a bankable idea, which is a requirement for students undertaking the Design Thinking Program.

Today, the team is actively looking for grants to finance their competitive idea to become the next frontier in organic waste management in Kenya and beyond.

The three visionary students showcased the validity of their idea recently, competing among four other groups of students during the graduation of a cohort of the Design Thinking Program.

USIU Africa has received a Sh5.5 million donation from the Chandaria Foundation to bolster operations at the Design Thinking Centre, which is housed at the university. This is a significant milestone for the institution in its commitment to nurturing entrepreneurial leaders who can create solutions for societal problems and drive positive change.

The Design Thinking Program was introduced at USIU by Ayushi Chandaria, an inspiring young entrepreneur and granddaughter to renowned philanthropist, Dr Manu Chandaria.

After graduating from a computer science and product design thinking course at Harvard University, Ayushi thought of how she can use her knowledge to change society, leading her to embark on a path that introduced the program locally.

"My passion was in design school and after graduating I thought of how I can influence social impact and innovation in Kenya."

For her grandfather, it was such a great idea that when she presented its expenditure plan, he funded 10 per cent of the total cost. The eight-week course, which is currently free, is an added value to courses being offered by the university.

"We appreciate the fact that Ayushi chose to work with us and introduce these international best practices here for our students in Kenya," said Dr Scott Bellows, who is in charge of the program at USIU.

Dr Chandaria congratulated her granddaughter for establishing the course.

"Ayushi had ambitions to teach design thinking after she graduated. She hinted at starting the program at USIU and I thought of welcoming her by providing space for the course," said Dr Chandaria, who is the USIU chancellor.

In 2022, Ayushi's dream came true when she launched the Design Thinking Course at the university to enable students to come up with innovative solutions for the community.

"Here, you learn the five stages of design thinking - that is empathy and understanding the end user; ideating, prototyping, coming up with a solution, and at the end is to test," Ayushi said.

Building upon the foundation laid by Ayushi Chandaria and her dedicated team, the Design Thinking Centre is poised to make a lasting impact on innovation and business in Africa. "We are so happy for this centre, which is a major milestone in the journey of accomplishing our mission," said Ayushi.

"Through creativity, collaboration and critical thinking, the centre will inspire students to become agents of innovation and social impact. Students, faculty, and the wider community are welcome to join the transformative initiative as they collectively shape the future with empathy and ingenuity," she added.

With a vision to transform innovation and business in Africa through design thinking processes, Ayushi has played a pivotal role in shaping the centre's development.

The Design Thinking Center aims to empower students with a human-centered approach to problem-solving.

Through inter-disciplinary education, research, and hands-on experiences, students develop a deep understanding of design principles and methodologies.

The centre believes in the transformative potential of design thinking and seeks to create a community of empathetic problem solvers. By integrating diverse disciplines and considering social, cultural and environmental contexts, students will develop innovative solutions to complex challenges.

Though Kioko and his teammates' pitch did not win, it received accolades as formidable and life-changing in the waste management sector - if they manage to secure funding to move it to the next level of development.

"Our model develops trash to treasure. In just four hours, our adopted technology can convert organic waste to compost at the domestic level," explained Kioko. "The commercial system can convert two tonnes of organic waste into compost," he added.

Though he did not succeed in the real estate business, he confesses that his friends inspired him with their admiration of his ideas and their encouragement.

"Stop assuming what you think people want, but empathise with them to develop a product that solves their problem. The modern business environment is about engineering and reengineering ideas to solve problems," he explained.

Kioko explained: "Our project started as an agricultural idea. We had thought of imparting knowledge to people in Turkana on how to produce food.

However, design thinking changed our perspective and gave us a new understanding of the problem. We eventually narrowed down our agricultural idea to this: Everything that comes from nature goes back to nature.

We identified a gap in agricultural production where everyone was taking from nature but hardly giving back to nature. We grappled with the question: How can waste be taken back to nature sustainably?

We did practical research - which is a key feature of design thinking - and tried various solutions, eventually narrowing down to a single idea - the most accurate workable solution, which in our case was provided by existing technology.

We realised that the problem is with the people who are throwing away garbage without caring where it is going. In the eyes of the user, it has lost value.

The team almost gave up on week five of the program.

"Our research found out there were already some gadgets in the market that could do what we aimed to do. We had hit a dead end. Luckily, we discovered that the gadgets are not available in the local market, signaling an opportunity in the supply chain.

The gadgets work by compressing and biologically breaking down food waste and other biodegradable materials in a couple of hours. The waste has to be properly segregated for effective disposal.

"The idea not only presents a business opportunity, but also cuts down pollution, produces less dry matter, has no smell, eliminates disease, and occupies little space. It addresses the huge problem of waste disposal in urban areas while doing business, which is a core facet of design thinking," they noted.

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