Trish Abalo won a $1,200 grant to help people in dire need overseas, and she knows exactly what she is going to do with it.
The Michigan State University senior plans to help out food vendors in Malawi through a program she helped launch last summer.
The money will fund projects to improve storage, access to electricity and other food-related problems in the markets of Lilongwe, Malawi.
The grant comes from the MSU Honors College Schoenl Family Undergraduate Grant for Dire Needs Overseas, which awards year-long grants to undergraduate students pursuing projects that help people in dire need outside the United States. Students write proposals for what they would like to do with the grant. Selected applicants receive either $1,200 or $1,800 for their projects.
In 2015, Abalo went to Malawi to pilot the Frugal Innovation Practicum. The Interdisciplinary Studies in Health and Society major was among the students and faculty looking for inexpensive innovations to improve food systems in Lilongwe.
Abalo hopes the funds strengthen partnerships this year among the Michigan State University team, the Lilongwe market vendors, the Lilongwe City Council and the Lilongwe University of Agricultural and Natural Resources (LUANAR) in Malawi.
“The funds are a way to say, ’We understand that we went in, and we understand that there’s these needs and you are already doing all these wonderful things to address this,’” Abalo said. “So how can we help with the existing initiatives?”
The money would likely deal with problems identified last year. But that plan may change.
“It’s been a year,” Abalo said. “Lots of things could have cropped up since then that are more immediate needs.”
The money Abalo is bringing to the project comes as the Frugal Innovation Practicum evolves.
Stephanie White, an MSU faculty member leading the initiative, spent the past year developing a new version. Budget cuts mean that a program that was free to students last year now comes with a price tag.
“I’ve asked the students to be prepared to kick in $2,500 for the plane ticket, but I think I will be able to subsidize that to some degree,” White said. “I don’t think any of them will have to pay that much.”
Some students, who come from disciplines like supply chain management and agribusiness, have been requesting funds from their departments, White said.
“If an adviser has a discretionary fund of money, they’ll kick in $500 or so,” she said. “A couple of them have had luck doing that.”
White’s team has found alternative funds, including MSU CrowdPower, a crowdfunding site for Michigan State University affiliated groups.
The money would be spread across the four markets in Lilongwe that students from MSU and from LUANAR studied in 2015.
“We’ll have a little bit of money for each market for them to apply towards whatever issue they deem most important and most manageable, given the funds,” White said. “Probably not more than $1,500 or so for each market.”
The MSU team is also coming up with ways to manage the money and decide which projects will be funded, she said.
“The students built a lot of goodwill in markets,” White said. “What we’re going to do is build on what the students did last year by trying to get further down the road toward solutions.”
Abalo said her time in Malawi was one of the most amazing experiences of her life. Although she is not returning this year, she wanted to find a way to contribute to the program.
“Probably my biggest inspiration is Dr. White and her team,” Abalo said. “They continue to do this research. So then (I asked), ‘how can I as a student contribute something to that?’”