How a young entrepreneur is saving lives in Pakistan
Before coming to the United States through the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program in Pakistan (Global UGRAD-Pakistan), Usama volunteered with Afghan refugees in a UN Refugee Agency camp where he witnessed people suffering from waterborne diseases. After participating in the program, Usama used his newfound leadership and project management skills to develop a range of water filtration products to help save lives.
“When I found out that seven children had died in the camp because of waterborne diseases, I was struck by the loss,” says Usama. “If the children are not healthy, then how can they go to school or seek education?”
Usama knew that a simple water filtration device could stop the spread of diseases and give refugee children, and others without access to clean water, a future.
Collaborating with American students to make a global impact
In Pakistan, 62% of urban populations and 84% of rural populations do not treat their water, resulting in 100 million cases of diarrheal disease and up to 250,000 child deaths each year. Usama decided to take action. Inspired by the ground-breaking LifeStraw, a portable water filtration device in the shape of a drinking straw, Usama began to work on a more cost-effective version for refugees and those living in rural communities. The “PakStraw” was born.
For the next two years, Usama worked on a PakStraw prototype but struggled to find the technology he needed to make it cost-effective. Then, as a participant in the Global UGRAD-Pakistan program at Florida State University (FSU), Usama took a chemical engineering class and learned how hollow fiber membrane technology (HFMT) is used in US sanitation systems. Water passes through hundreds of tightly packed hollow tubes or “membranes” filled with microscopic pores, which filter out microbial cells and remove impurities, making the water potable.
“We learned how HFMT can save millions of lives around the world by providing cost-effective and simple water purification solutions,” says Usama.
Usama collaborated with three American classmates and found a way to successfully incorporate HFMT into his PakStraw prototype.
“My Global UGRAD-Pakistan experience is where it all started,” says Usama about his final design for PakStraw. “This program is exceptional in the way it has provided me with an opportunity to connect with and learn leadership skills from some of the world’s best mentors in the business.”
Developing sustainable solutions to support underprivileged communities
Following his experience in the Global UGRAD-Pakistan program, Usama’s new project management skills earned him a slot to compete in the annual Social Innovation Challenge hosted by the Fred J. Hansen Summer Institute on Leadership & International Cooperation. He led a team of participants from Brazil, Bulgaria, and Georgia to create a business model for a startup called PakVitae, which would develop a range of water filtration products, including PakStraw.
My Global UGRAD-Pakistan experience is where it all started... Now I am more determined and feel more responsible for giving back to my community, and to work for social entrepreneurship for the welfare of my society.Usama, a Global UGRAD–Pakistan alumnus
Usama and his team won the Challenge and received $4,500 to pilot their startup in Pakistan. “PakVitae is a social enterprise which will provide off-the-grid, cost-effective water purification solutions for underprivileged communities,” says Usama.
In March 2018, the team traveled to Dubai and pitched PakVitae in a regional competition for the prestigious Hult Prize, which awards seed funding to a team of young social entrepreneurs that designs the most competitive and sustainable idea for a startup that solves one of the world’s most critical social challenges. This year, PakVitae won the regional Hult Prize for Pakistan.
In summer 2018, Usama and his team will head to the United Kingdom to participate in the Hult Prize Startup Accelerator along with 50 other global teams. The program will prepare them for the Hult Prize Final in September 2018 and a shot at a $1 million prize. They are the first team to represent Pakistan in the finals of the competition.
If PakVitae is successful in Pakistan, the team plans to move into the Brazilian market to meet a growing need for clean water in underserved areas of Brazil, along with other regions in the world. “We would like PakVitae to go global,” says Usama.
“Now I am more determined and feel more responsible for giving back to my community, and to work for social entrepreneurship for the welfare of my society,” says Usama.
The Global Undergraduate Exchange Program in Pakistan is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX.