• Carolina MIlanesi

The Winners Of The 2020 Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge Find The Good In Tech

As part of its Corporate Social Responsibility effort, Cisco stated its commitment to positively impact 1 billion people by 2025. Among other things, the initiative involves empowering people across the world to find solutions to problems that profoundly affect their own communities as well as society as a whole. The Global Problem Solver Challenge fits right into this vein as it aims to recognize new business ideas that leverage technology for good from student entrepreneurs and recent alumni from any college or university across the world.


In its fourth edition, the 2020 annual Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge focused on the Internet of Things (IoT) and data. I was privileged to be one of the ten judges tasked with scoring the 20 brilliant finalists to determine the 13 teams that will share the grand prize money of $350,000. Prize money that will certainly help accelerate the execution and go to market phase of breakthrough technology, products, and services that drive economic development and/or solve social or environmental problems.


"With so many innovative and inspiring solutions out there, our Global Problem Solver Challenge seems to get more and more difficult to judge each year - and 2020 was no exception," said Tae Yoo, Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Cisco. "We hope by recognizing and awarding our Global Problem Solver Challenge winners we're able to help jumpstart innovative ideas that benefit society, catalyze economic growth, create jobs, and shape a more inclusive future."


The process that led to today's announcement started with applications submitted by 524 teams back in October 2019. From there, winners were selected after three rounds of competition, judged by over 80 judges made up of Cisco employee volunteers and both internal and external subject-matter experts. Public voting also played a role in determining two People's Choice Awards. Judges were called to assess the solutions based on four distinct criteria:

  • How innovative is the solution in how it uses new or existing tech to solve a local or global problem?

  • How feasible is the solution to put into practice?

  • What is the scale of the potential social impact?

  • How well does the team articulate the solution and its potential impact?

I invite you to read all about the winners and their projects here.


The Grand Prize Winner: Savanna Circuit Tech


Founders Percy Lemtukei and Emmastella Gakuo, of the University of Kenya, designed a solar-powered chilling system for in transit use inclusive of a dairy management system for dairy businesses/cooperatives in Africa to cut post-harvest losses. They started their project in 2017 with the desire to limit the over 30% post-harvest loss that small dairy farmers face on a recurrent basis. Savanna Circuit takes over "the last mile" of the milk distribution by adding a solar-powered chilling system that can be mounted on any vehicle, from a motorbike to a truck. The system has sensors to achieve the optimal temperature to maintain the nutritional value and prolong life. With the addition of a PH probe, they ensure milk quality and limit bacteria from human interference.  The service comes with an app that helps farmers book transportation in a timely manner and fast-track paperwork. 


Since 2017, Savanna Circuit has successfully trained 16 operators, created an enabling environment to aggregate milk, and expanded into four counties, reaching close to 3000 people daily with portable cold storage. Their goal is to reach 36% of the addressable market, which is around 5.6 million small farmers, in 10 years with 50,000 motorbike capacity, 200 tricycles and 15 trucks. Savanna Circuit's solution positively impacts women and youth who have been mostly responsible for fetching firewood to boil milk so it can be preserved during transportation. The prize money will enable Savanna Circuit to install and operate ten 3,000-liter capacity chilling systems in 7 dairy regions through Kenya, saving 420 million liters of spoiled and wasted milk. 


Lessons Learnt


This is not the first time I have judged a technology competition. Still, I must admit I was blown away by participants' ingenuity, business savviness but mostly by how many developed a solution that has the potential to deliver a multi-layer positive impact on society. Many solutions consisted of a product or a service that provided a positive impact on people's socio-economic status, their health and their environment. As I read through the detailed submission questionnaire and watched the elevator pitches they submitted, I could not help but to long for the same level of sensitivity and care to transpire from established technology players that often seem to bring solutions to market that widen the digital divide and the equity gap. 


Overall, three common traits stood out to me from the twenty entries:

  • Diversity and Inclusion – Women founders and co-founders seem to be more frequent and even more importantly, they seem more empowered than in Silicon Valley.

  • Empathy - All entrants were very much in touch with the reality and the needs of their communities. This led them to deliver solutions that were realistic and approachable either in the way of cost or ease of use.

  •  Ethics - When talking about competitive solutions, they focused on their own advantages rather than talking down their competitors. 

I am sure that when Cisco set out to impact 1 million people by 2025, the focus was on launching initiatives like the Global Problem Solver Challenge to provide opportunities to people in developing markets to grow through technology and make a positive impact on their communities. Initiatives that build confidence, self -sustainability, pride and resilience all while having a positive effect on the economy and quality of life. What Cisco might not have anticipated is the inspirational and educational impact that participants in initiatives like the Global Problem Solver Challenge might have on people, starting with the fact that tech for good and a lucrative business are not mutually exclusive goals. 

This article was originally published on Forbes


Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.

©2019 by The Heart of Tech