A team of four Notre Dame MBA students took
first place in a social entrepreneurship case competition for the second
consecutive year with an incentive-savvy plan to boost distribution of clean
water in rural Ghana.
The team of Jessica Bonanno, Steve Lehmann, Daniel Portilla and
Patrick Riley devised the winning proposal in the third-annual Innovation in
Social Entrepreneurship Case Competition, held March 27-29 at Brigham Young
University in Provo, Utah. The Notre Dame MBAs competed against their counterparts
from BYU and the universities of Portland, Colorado and Utah.
The teams were challenged to solve a problem facing Safe Water Network,
a nonprofit founded by the late actor Paul Newman and still affiliated with the
Newman’s Own Foundation. The network’s goal is to develop innovative ways to
provide safe, affordable water to those in need.
The Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship at Notre Dame’s Mendoza
College of Business sponsored the Notre Dame team and helped the students
prepare for the case. Viva Bartkus, Notre Dame associate professor of
management, served as faculty mentor and adviser. Lehmann is also president of
Notre Dame’s chapter of Net Impact, a group that promotes the use of business
skills to support social and environmental causes.
The competition was hosted by BYU’s Ballard Center for Economic
The teams focused on a Safe Water Network purification facility
in the Ghanaian village of Dzemeni near Lake Volta. Ghana is a country in West
Africa. The facility draws water from the lake and sells it, at low cost (about
1 to 2 percent of average monthly income) to the people of the village. Pipes
carry the clean water out to other nearby villages, where it can be purchased
According to background information provided to the teams, Safe
Water’s desire is to transfer ownership and operation of the facility to local
owners, but after a few years the system was not yet profitable.
Drawing on Lehmann’s prior experience in engineering and
international development, the Notre Dame team first recommended replacing the
facility’s infrastructure with easier-to-maintain technology. They also devised
an incentives-laden business plan relying on micro-franchises granted to
entrepreneurs. Under their plan, the entrepreneurs would make no profit on
water sold up to a certain volume, established by the community or system
manager. But once sales exceeded that threshold the franchise owners would earn
a 50-70 percent profit.
weeded out folks who wanted to be kiosk owners but wouldn’t really hustle,” said
Lehmann,” Lehmann said. “Once you get past the threshold point, the incentive
to sell one more marginal unit of water is very, very high, so … people were
incentivized to sell a lot and motivated to educate the community about (the benefits
of) clean water as well.”
Hebert, Safe Water Network program associate, said he thought all of the teams
at the competition had insightful ideas, but he and his fellow judges agreed
that the Notre Dame team’s recommendations were a cut above.
all of the teams, they articulated the clearest understanding of the particular
challenges Safe Water Network faces, and they demonstrated an ability to unite
high-level strategic logic with real-world examples to arrive at well-reasoned
conclusions,” he said.