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Garden-in-a-box system to vie for student prize

Students at Memorial university hire homeless and at-risk youth to assemble vegetable growing bins and sell them to rural and remote communities. Each $350 bin produces about 450 kg of fresh vegetables a year.

Memorial University

The Globe's biweekly business-school news roundup.

Fresh, affordable produce is hard to come by in some rural and remote communities in Canada.

One solution is a low-cost hydroponic system developed by enterprising commerce students with a social conscience from Memorial University's faculty of business administration in St. John's.

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Later this month in Toronto, the Memorial students and their "Project Sucseed" will represent Canada and compete against teams from 36 countries at the World Cup of Enactus, a non-profit organization that promotes youth social entrepreneurship.

Earlier this year, the Memorial chapter of Enactus won first prize at the organization's national competition for their hydroponic project developed with design assistance from the university's engineering faculty. The $100 system, made of recycled materials, fits into a medium-size plastic bin 49 cm by 72 cm by 39 cm and produces greens and fresh vegetables in a matter of weeks.

As well, the Enactus students hire homeless and at-risk youth to assemble the storage bins (including pH pumps and LED lights) and sell them for $350 each to groups and individuals in rural and remote communities. Each bin produces about 450 kg of fresh vegetables a year.

Emily Bland, an undergraduate commerce student who is also president of Memorial Enactus, says Project Sucseed generated a buzz as soon as it was conceived, especially after a story ran in the local St. John's newspaper last November. Instead of their original estimate of 15 to 20 bins for distribution in rural Labrador, the Memorial students have sold 128 units to date, she says.

Support has come from local groups, schools and the private sector.

Capital One, a credit card company, this year donated $500 (and in-kind support) to 50 college and university teams across Canada, including Memorial, to develop projects that teach financial skills. In addition to hiring homeless youth for several hours a week to build the hydroponic bins, the Memorial students teach them the basics of managing money.

Ian Hanning, chief financial officer of Capital One and a board member of Enactus Canada, says company employees provide mentoring and other in-kind assistance. For example, to ensure the financial viability of the Memorial project, Capital One mentors recommended including a loan repayment component for buyers to repay the purchase price over two years.

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"A program like Enactus is tremendous in creating real on-the-ground projects and leverage from an army of committed and passionate students right across the country," Mr. Hanning says. "They can identify those projects and needs in their towns and communities and execute them far more efficiently than we ever could."

The fresh-food-in-a box system holds special meaning for Ms. Bland, who was raised on a poultry farm in central Newfoundland.

"I know how much difference agriculture can make in someone's life," says the fifth-year commerce student, who graduates shortly and hopes to pursue a career in agri-business.

For now, though, she and her team of 72 students are preparing for their appearance at the Enactus World Cup, last won by a team from Memorial in 2008.

"We have big shoes to fill," she says.

On-campus collaboration at the University of Alberta

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Business and engineering students often live in their own worlds but increasingly are interacting with each other for mutual gain.

At the University of Alberta, the faculties of business and engineering hope to offer a new specialty certificate next year for prospective engineers to acquire business fundamentals before graduation. As currently imagined, a cohort of engineering students would take their four-year engineering program and add a year of selected business courses, learning alongside their undergraduate business administration peers.

U of A business dean Joseph Doucet and his engineering counterpart, Fraser Forbes, are putting the finishing touches on the new certificate. Dr. Doucet says he hopes that engineering graduates, armed with their professional degree and the proposed business certificate, "will have a much more developed sense of business issues, challenges and ways of thinking that we think will benefit them a great deal when they go out on the job market."

But he adds that business students have much to learn from engineering students about technology and technology innovation, including a different way of looking at a problem. "In terms of the way that technologies are developed within an organization or technology projects are managed and developed for a new market, I think engineers have a very different and important way of looking at that," he says.

Dr. Forbes says he often hears from engineering alumni on the value of adding business content to the professional degree.

"What is important is that our engineering students understand the business world a little bit," he says. "Every one of our successful alumni has something to do with the business world."

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Contact Jennifer at jlewington@bell.net

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