Mr. Denny Phillip, Manager for the Big Ideas contest at University of California Berkeley’s (UC Berkeley) Development Impact Lab (DIL) visited Makerere University from January 31st – February 7th 2017. The purpose of this visit was to facilitate technical sessions with Big Ideas finalist teams, judges and mentors in the 2016/2017 contest as well as to follow-up on the progress of past winners and their impact on ground.

RAN lab and the Development Impact Lab (DIL) at UC Berkeley are HESN Development labs both funded by USAID working collaboratively to spur innovation by tapping into the potential of big university networks while engaging multi-disciplinary teams to solve development challenges. The two labs have worked jointly in the past to deliver the Big Ideas competition to students, an annual contest aimed at providing funding, support, and encouragement to interdisciplinary teams of students who have “Big ideas.”

Phillips’s visit kicked off with an internal meeting with the RAN Innovation Lab staff, who had a productive discussion reflecting on how the program had grown over the past years, drawing lessons from the previous competitions and recommendations to make it even much better.

He gave an in-depth introduction about the programs that the Blum Center that UC Berkeley hosts alongside the Big Ideas Contest. The Blum Center for Developing Economies is UC Berkeley’s interdisciplinary hub for students, researchers, and scholars and is focused on global poverty and inequality. The Center enables interdisciplinary problem-solving in key areas such as energy, health, education, financial services, food, water, and sanitation operating on the notion that a university must be a force for tackling society’s most urgent and important problems.  He highlighted that the Blum Center runs on 3 pillars:

  • Development Impact Lab (DIL) – which is a global consortium of researchers, industry and development partners committed to advancing international development through science and technology.
  • BigIdeas@Berkeley which is one of the oldest and most international university-based student idea contests. The contest which was founded in 2006, provides funding, support, and mentoring to students seeking to have real-world impact in the areas of clean energy, global health, and food security, among other global challenges.
  • Education programs that include; The Global Poverty and Practice Minor which is one of the most popular academic minors at UC Berkeley training students to critically analyze the history and sources of poverty and inequality, and prepare them to engage with poverty alleviation in communities all over the world. Development Engineering an interdisciplinary training program that prepares students in engineering, business, and the social sciences to create, pilot, and evaluate technological interventions and solutions for low-resource settings.

Some of the recommendations discussed by the team included;

  • Expanding the collaboration beyond the Development Impact lab and the Blum Center at UC Berkeley and to work with other multi-disciplinary departments at either campuses like in Business, Engineering among others.
  • Link the Development Engineering team to the College of Engineering at Makerere University and explore ways how the college students can benefit from this vital course
  • To think about a longer term plan for the winners of the contest so that these early stage projects identified do not phase out or get neglected.

On Subsequent days, Phillip embarked on one-one Information sessions that were scheduled at Makerere University main campus and at RAN lab with finalist teams of the Big Ideas contest for 2016/2017.  Five teams from Makerere made it to the final contest stage and will work with mentors to refine their projects and develop full proposals that are due on 8th March 2017. He used this opportunity to give vital guiding information sessions to help them during this stage. Phillip also had extra meetings organized aside from the student meetings to innovation Hubs like the “Innovation Village” ( to get a better understanding of the innovation landscape in Uganda and support systems that exist which Makerere University innovators can tap into.

It is incredible to note that over the past 4 years we have witnessed remarkable participation of multi-disciplinary teams of students from Makerere University supported by faculty as mentors in the Big Ideas innovation contest.

In 2013/2014 when the contest was expanded to Makerere University 34 students participated and two projects got prizes and accolades from Judges namely; Agro Market Day – $1000 and E-liiso – $ 3000. In 2014/2015, 50 students submitted their proposals and one Team (Mama Ope) won a prize of $6000.

In 2015/2016, 120 students participated and two projects were awarded namely; Pedal Tap  ( which won $5000 and Mama Ope that won $2,500 in the Scaling-up category.

The contest has been a great initiative challenging students to step outside of their traditional university-based academic work, take a risk, and use their education, passion, and skills to work on community challenges.

We recognize the enormous contribution of networks and partnerships, this is one of the successful collaborations across HESN universities that has encouraged, supported and recognized students from all disciplines to innovate realizing that this is a critical pillar in tackling the complexities of modern day development challenges.