Blum Center Alumni Take UNLEASH

Blum Center Alumni Take UNLEASH

By Francesca Munsayac

The Blum Center is pleased to announce that three Blum-nominated social innovators and their teams won recognition at UNLEASH, a nine-day-long global development event held in Denmark. Zoe Bezpalko won gold in Urban Sustainability, Jordan Freitas took silver in the Health, while Rachel Voss received bronze in Food. In addition, other outstanding attendees from the Blum Center ecosystem included m-Omulimisa founder Daniel Ninsiima and undergraduate bioengineering student Fanice Nyatigo.

By partnering with UNLEASH, a global non-profit initiative aiming to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Blum Center hopes to help its alumni reach greater heights, supporting their efforts to bring their social ventures to fruition.

Meet the cohort

Zoe Bezpalko’s team: Demolition4Design

Ninsiima is a Michigan State graduate who partnered with colleague and fellow MSU alumni Linlin Liang to develop “m-Omulimisa”, a phone-based platform that increases access to extension services for rural Ugandan farmers by providing critical agricultural information via SMS messaging in a local language.

Since 2015, Bezpalko’s role as an Autodesk’s Design Lead remains crucial to The Blum Center’s partnership with the Autodesk Foundation. Bezpalko has helped infuse our programs with a greater focus on impact design and sustainability, specifically to solve social and environmental challenges.

Freitas is a completing a computer science PhD program at Berkeley while working with a research group called Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER). Freitas’ research concentrates on improving methods of impact analysis and sharing data responsibly.

Nyatigo is an bioengineering student interning at Fletcher Labs, which aims to codify and control biological structures in order to develop ways for therapeutic intervention. Specifically, Nyatigo — under the tutelege of a PhD student — works to combine machine learning concepts and other imaging processing techniques to improve the quality of the image of the biological structures.

Before becoming a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz, Voss worked as a Program Coordinator at the UC Berkeley Blum Center. Now Voss is conducting research that focuses on participatory farmer trials in order to boost yields through improved soil and water management in Senegal.

An Experience of a Lifetime

Rachel Voss’ team: HarvestHub

Bezpalko and her team created Demolition4Design, a database that disseminates information to link designers, developers, manufacturers and engineers. The database will spread knowledge on sustainable solutions while diverting landfill wastes to new markets; ultimately, creating lasting impacts for environmental, economic and social development.

Freitas was one of the makers if Afterain, a free toolkit designed to aid displaced individuals experiencing trauma and other mental health issues through art therapy. In addition, Afterain will sell high-quality notebooks locally and overseas to generate revenue to fund rehabilitation camps.

Through HarvestHub, Voss and her fellow innovators wanted to connect farmers in Tanzania to post-harvest services, such as storage, processing, transportation, and networking to markets. This mobile platform will allow farmers to contract services on demand, which will improve their livelihood and reduce food loss.  

“I would probably never have applied to UNLEASH if the Blum Center hadn’t put it on my radar. I’ve made so many connections to inspiring, passionate people around the world who are now my friends but also potential partners in my future work. I’ve never done anything like UNLEASH before but I am so grateful I had the chance to attend.” said Voss.

GPP Alumni Reflect on Post-Grad Life

From the East Coast to the Bay Area, several esteemed Global Poverty and Practice Minor program alumni gathered in Blum Hall for a panel hosted by GPP to speak about their experiences after graduation. For the majority of the graduates, the minor was crucial in shaping their career paths and passions — and in some cases, far more impactful than their majors.

Staying true to the nature of GPP, each alumnus had different majors and, after graduation, entered different fields. Although they are all still trying to “figure it out”, these returning students had plenty of advice to give to current program students.

Where are they Now?

Farnaz Malik, a 2011 graduate who has a degree in Integrative Biology, said that the minor had a profound effect on what she did post-graduation. Through GPP coursework, Malik began to foster an interest in epidemiology, a branch of medicine that deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health. Now, six years and two degrees later, Malik works at Vital Strategies, a global health nonprofit in New York that partners with governments to design public health initiatives and build better health systems — particularly in low and middle income countries. For Malik, the GPP minor has come full circle now that she can further her interests in epidemiology at Vital Strategies.

2015 graduate Shrey Goel is a case manager with Asian Health Services and volunteer at the Berkeley Free Clinic. In his undergraduate years, Goel majored in Environmental Sciences, but recalled how his GPP courses were the ones that interested him the most. He discussed how the clinic is furthering this education through a more hands on approach. After graduation, he landed a job as a research coordinator at UCSF where he learned plenty about clinical research, but where he was also exposed to the ethical dilemmas embedded in research.

“I think the years since I graduated really enriched me in challenging my own role and my own position in the institutions I participate in,” Goel said. “I hope to pursue a career in medicine in a way that is more authentic to what my actual interests are.”

Nikki Brand, a Master’s student in International Policy Studies at Stanford, graduated from Cal in 2013 with a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and immediately moved to Guatemala to work as a field consultant with Community Empowerment Solutions, supporting women micro-entrepreneurs in marketing and selling products with health and environmental benefits. In 2014, Brand started at USAID as a program assistant, which “was not glamorous” at first, but after a year Brand was promoted to a team tasked with applying digital tools and approaches to support  small farmers around the world.

Brand traveled to multiple countries — Ghana, Nepal, and Cambodia, to name a few — conducting workshops and research on ways that digital tools such as mobile money, digitally-enabled extension services, and geospatial analysis can support smallholder farmers. Brand left USAID in August to start a Master’s at Stanford and will be continuing to focus on the use of technology and data in international development.

2011 Graduate Lauren Herman said her story was far from linear. After she graduated with her B.A. in Peace and Conflict Studies, she received the Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize and traveled to Nairobi, Kenya to do consumer outreach, which was inspired by her Practice Experience working with a microcredit program. When she didn’t get accepted to a public policy fellowship program she had applied for after she returned from Kenya, Herman said she took some time off to seriously reevaluate her goals and wants. After initially preparing to apply to graduate school, Herman secured a job as the Director of Communication and Training at a consulting and organizational management company where she’s worked for the past four years. But she credits her time off as fundamental to finding her own path.

“What I hope you take away from all this is no one has it set in stone,” said Herman. “ It’s all about taking it day by day and asking others for help.”

Lastly, Areidy Beltran, a Class of 2015 alumna who studied Environmental Earth Sciences, said her first job was an environmental/geotechnical engineer in Oakland. After a year, however, Beltran discovered that she wanted to work on issues of energy and climate change on a broader scale. This led her to return to Cal for a Master’s in Earth and Planetary Science and pursue additional short-term programs focused on computer science and business education. Now in order to meld her interests in business and environmental science, Beltran said she is considering a job in energy consulting.

The Road to Grad School

Many students in the audience wanted to know how these graduates weighed in on the value of graduate school and what were the best strategies to approaching the next step in academia, if they wished to do so.

Brand said she talked to at least 100 people before applying to grad school, which led her to some valuable advice. First, is to have at least two different jobs before entering graduate school in order to get a feel for what one should study. Similarly, Beltran said taking a year off led her to the realization that she did not want to pursue environmental engineering as a career. Second, Brand advised students to pay attention to job descriptions of positions they want to be in 5 years in the future, and noted many of them will require a graduate degree and at least two years of work experience.

“Wait until you at least have a more specific sense of what you want to do in life,” said Brand “Now I have a better sense of what direction I want to go in.”

Change is Okay  

When confronted with sobering statistics and facts on global poverty, students of the GPP minor admitted that the work of global social development can often seem overwhelming. The speakers, in turn, recommended ways to deal with “burnout”.

Herman reminded students that the small ways in which the minor engages them to be critical thinkers matter, as well. Although progress is slow, Herman said it is crucial for students to not put too much on themselves and to “slow down and breathe.”

Beltran assured students that it is okay to change your mind, even after graduation. She said that she considers jobs right after graduation as experiences that should lead to self-reflection and change.

Goel believes the issue of scale underlies the struggle to find purpose after graduation for many students, meaning that students may feel pressured to have a large impact on a large scale. He found focusing on  concrete skills development helped him find a sense of purpose.

“By really making sure I’m in spaces where I’m learning something very specific and I’m doing something very specific, I can gain an understanding of the connection between output and input,” said Goel. “So I understand what my effort and work is worth and can actually accomplish.”

Through their different experiences, these alumni imparted their knowledge upon the next generation of global development changemakers. The Blum Center is proud to see its graduates contributing to the GPP community and is looking forward to what they will accomplish next.

InFEWS Welcomes New Graduate Cohort

InFEWS Welcomes New Graduate Cohort

Last month, the Blum Center hosted a networking reception for its inaugural cohort of Innovation at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (InFEWS) doctoral students.  InFEWS is a prestigious National Science Foundation-funded graduate research program that uses the Development Engineering (DevEng) methodology to create solutions for challenges that span food, energy and water systems in low-resource settings domestically and abroad.

An exceptional and well traveled-group of 19 fellows, the InFEWS Fall 2017 cohort’s research focuses range from environmental science and policy, economics, engineering to social welfare, all of which will help enhance the program’s collaborative and interdisciplinary process. During the reception, Drs. Alice Agogino and Sophi Martin showcased the wide range of resources available to the Fellows, and students shared their research interests and networked with faculty. Students’ research interests include important topics such as resource recovery in rural settings, international development policy evaluation, and access to safe water.

The DevEng program and the Blum Center are excited to welcome these innovative and highly-motivated individuals to InFEWS. Check out to learn more about the program and to read about the cohort’s progress.

30 Student Innovators from UC Berkeley Gear-Up for Clinton Global Initiative University

30 Student Innovators from UC Berkeley Gear-Up for Clinton Global Initiative University
UC Berkeley student Connor Gallaher present their innovation, PlasMachine, to President Bill Clinton
UC Berkeley student Connor Gallaher presents his innovation, PlasMachine, to President Bill Clinton.

By Francesca Munsayac  

In October, the Blum Center will send 30 UC Berkeley students to the 2017 Clinton Global Initiative University, an annual meeting sponsored by the Clinton Foundation. Each year, CGI U unites over 1,000 students from around the world to implement innovative solutions for global challenges. Students apply to CGI U with a “Commitment to Action,”—a concrete project that addresses an issue relating to one of CGI U’s five focus areas: education, environment & climate change, poverty alleviation, peace & human rights, and public health. An invitation to CGI U is a highly competitive process for students as their Commitment to Action (COA) must be new, specific and measurable.

CGI U provides support, mentorship, and resources to emerging student innovators, including opportunities for students to pitch their COA at the conference, win prize money, and learn from experts in the field of social entrepreneurship. Eleven of the 30 UC Berkeley students attending were also selected to present at the CGI U Exchange, an exhibition to explore partnerships and network with other participants. In addition, two students were selected for the “CGI U Commitment Challenge” – a crowdsourcing competition to raise money for their COA.

As a CGI U network partner, UC Berkeley has sent 350 UC Berkeley students to CGI U over the event’s ten-year history, and students have gone on to raise thousands of dollars in investment to launch impactful social ventures. This year’s CGI U attendees also include eight participants from Big Ideas@Berkeley; like CGI U, Big Ideas@Berkeley brings together students from multidisciplinary backgrounds who collaborate to develop innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social and development challenges.

According to CGI U organizers, UC Berkeley has maintained a reputation for consistently sending large cohorts of students who produce high-caliber projects every year. The following UC Berkeley teams are among those that will present at the CGI U in October. Check back on the Blum Center News’ section for updates and to track their progress as the competition unfolds.


Social Innovator Spotlights

Aiding the Refugee Effort in Greece

Thanh Mai Bercher, UC Berkeley’s 2017 Activist of the Year, and Holly Wertman, Chair of the City of Berkeley’s Community Health Commission, joined forces to support The Melissa Networka Blum Center partner organization that provides critical services to female refugees in Greece. Bercher and Wertman are supporting the Melissa Network to develop a long-term women’s health program, which will be widely publicized through UN-based and local agencies, filling the information gap of where and how female refugees can seek health services.

Maximizing Social Relationships to Improve Women’s Health

Osman Shokoor, former Vice President of UC Berkeley’s Afghan Student Association, is building a comprehensive community-based program that connects Afghan refugee mothers, and uses modeling of positive peer behavior to demonstrate how to achieve positive health outcomes.

Shokoor will coordinate an interactive weekly women’s exercise program that includes reflection sessions, and group seminars that provide a platform for Afghan women to discuss issues related to mental health, PTSD, intergenerational trauma, and common health concernssuch as Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease. To recruit participants and volunteers, Shokoor will partner with the Afghan Coalition, the oldest and most recognized Afghan community organization in the Bay Area.

Big Ideas Winners Increase Access to Extension Services in Rural Uganda

In rural Uganda, extension services help farmers apply cutting edge technologies and best practices that promote agricultural productivity and improve rural livelihoods.

Big Ideas Winners Increase Access to Extension Services in Rural Uganda


By Francesca Munsayac and April Young

In rural Uganda, extension services help farmers apply cutting edge technologies and best practices that promote agricultural productivity and improve rural livelihoods. While most African countries have extension programs that arm local farmers with the  agricultural information they need to succeed, limited resources often prevent extension workers from visiting more remote areas. Furthermore, the vast majority of technological solutions for agriculture are only offered English, limiting the reach of other IT innovations. To address this challenge, Big Ideas Contest winners, Linlin Liang and  Daniel Ninsiima, developed “m-Omulimisa”, a phone-based platform that increases access to extension services for rural Ugandan farmers by providing critical agricultural information via SMS messaging in a local language. Through m-Omulimisa, any farmer in Uganda, regardless of location, can ask agricultural questions in any language via text message, and receive answers from a trained extension officer.

According to Liang, m-Omulimisa, which means “mobile extension officer” in native Luganda, bridges the access and information gap left behind by existing agricultural extension programs. The m-Omulimisa team teaches extension officers how to use the platform, and in turn, these officers train farmers how to submit their questions. The platform currently has over 100 registered extension officers and is being used by nonprofit organizations like World Vision, Sasakawa Global 2000, VEDCO, as well as local district governments, to reach underserved farmers.

“Our product utilizes SMS services as a vehicle to communicate between officers and farmers. We made our decision to use text messaging based on what was available and affordable for farmers. Over 65% of Ugandans own mobile phones, and most of these are basic phones which can be used only for calls and text messaging. Only about 5% of Ugandans own smartphones. Additionally, the cost of text messaging in Uganda is a fraction of the cost of calling or data for the Internet. ” Liang said.

While developing their platform, the team confronted various challenges, including mobile illiteracy in rural areas, lack of motivation on behalf of the officers to answer the farmer’s questions, and limitations in the last-mile distribution of agricultural inputs.

The team tackled the issue of mobile illiteracy by working with extensions services partners to integrate mobile phone literacy into every aspect of farmer training and, in the future, they plan on developing videos in local languages that will instruct users on the basic functions of a mobile phone. Next, they will create a reward system that incentivizes and increases extension officer engagement. Lastly, they plan on building a network of community based “agripreneurs” (agricultural entrepreneurs) that will help farmers get access to products by increasing distribution channels in rural communities.  

When asked how Big Ideas contest helped the team translate their ideas into further action, Liang responded, “Before the contest, all we had were ideas, but no resources to change our ideas into action. The Big Ideas award made it possible for us to use our education, passion, and skills to start creating a tangible product to make a positive impact in the lives of smallholder farmers in Uganda. Even during the proposal stage, the training and mentorship from Big Ideas were phenomenal. We had a great mentor, Sean Krepp, who was connected through Big Ideas and helped us to rethink and reimagine the business model, partnership strategy, and product development. His guidance was vital in developing our winning proposal and starting a promising social enterprise.”

When asked if they had any advice for future students participating in Big Ideas, the m-Omulimisa team suggested the following:

(1) Identify the unique positioning of your product or service and how it adds value to prospective partners. In their case, many organizations are already providing agricultural extension services through the traditional face-to-face (in-person) approach, but there are not enough extension officers to serve every farmer.  Their platform makes it possible to help more farmers in a timely manner at minimal cost.

(2) Human capital is critical in the early stages of developing your innovation. It is very helpful to have a team member who has extensive connections or experience with stakeholders in the industry or field where operations are taking place. Exploring potential partnerships with other existing products and services is also significantly helpful.

(3) Communicate with your team as regularly as possible. Fluid internal communication is a critical prerequisite for early-stage decision-making. If you are working with team members overseas, take advantage of both formal and informal communication tools (e.g., emails and Facebook).
Liang and Ninsiima are currently in the registration process of becoming a social enterprise. According to Liang, they will continue refining their business model to better reach underserved communities. In addition, they are looking to partner with university-based and agricultural researchers  in order to build a coalition of experts who can respond to farmer’s questions. With this support,  m-Omulimisa believes farmers will become vital actors in the movement to alleviate hunger and poverty in the developing world.

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Host and Fellow Responsibilities

Host Organizations

  • Identify staff supervisor to manage I&E Climate Action Fellow
  • Submit fellowship description and tasks
  • Engage in the matching process
  • Mentor and advise students
  • Communicate with Berkeley program director and give feedback on the program.

Berkeley Program Director​

  • Communicate with host organizations, students, and other university departments to ensure smooth program operations

Student Fellows

  • Complete application and cohort activities
  • Communicate with staff and host organizations
  • Successfully complete assignments from host organization during summer practicum
  • Summarize and report summer experience activities post-fellowship