Sunday Star Times article: Kiwi
challenge behind vaccination bracelet to immunise millions of Indian children
UC Insider's Guide: Winning Team Focused on Making a Difference in India
Where else, but in India, could you: visit a slum, talk to mothers in a local vaccination centre, hang out of a moving bus, get a shout-out from a Bollywood star on Instagram, see a Wonder of the World, nearly get lost doing washing, and give a winning presentation; all in 13 days (and still have time for a birthday celebration).
Lying an hour north of Mangalore on the South-West coast of India, Manipal University hosted me for the first week of the trip. With the student town vibe of Dunedin and the climate of Bali, the place felt designed for me. Being based out of the huge "Innovation Centre" on campus allowed a glimpse of some awesome projects going on. In a particularly cool project, some students had developed a new way of producing solar panels in a way that makes them suitable for use in slums - providing a cheap and permanent power source!
The New Zealand India Sustainability Challenge asks teams to come up with ways of making India a more sustainable place to live. Each of the six final teams from the regional rounds got a Kiwi student to help them out in preparation for the final presentation. VaxiBead, the project I am fortunate enough to have worked with, looks to improve vaccination record keeping in India. Despite a government funded vaccine schedule, there are 9,600,000 unvaccinated children (under 5 years old) in India - more than twice the total population of New Zealand! VaxiBead tackles this by replacing the notorious mountains of paperwork with a digital system, and some ingenious other components, to raise vaccination engagement across the country.
Work on VaxiBead had been ongoing for around 8 months when I arrived in India. This meant that preparation for the finale was mostly focused on gathering promo material and additional feedback from stakeholders. This meant that we spent most of our time out in the field - at health centres, slums, and an orphanage. Night-time's were spent building the slides and putting together a short video. We finalised our presentation only a few hours before we were on stage, with just enough time for a quick back-stage rehearsal. Despite plenty of public speaking experience, this was unlike anything I had done before. The ballroom was astonishingly beautiful, with some very notable attendees, and the whole experience was almost larger than life. Despite tough competition, we were fortunate enough to take out first place - with the prize being an all expenses paid trip for my Indian teammates to visit New Zealand!
I was fortunate enough to work with the most amazing team. Saisri and Dhruv are both students at Manipal University who started this project with guidance from Dr Arun Shanbhag - a Harvard professor for 34 years! Between working on the project, Dhruv and Saisri took me to the local beach, to "Barbeque Nation" for my birthday (which included having cake thrown in my face), for meals at local student restaurants, and introduced me to their friends. I even stayed over at one of their friend's flats as we had missed our hall of residence's curfew. I'd struggle to find better people to have sitting by my bed as I dealt with a rough case of food poisoning!
We spent the second week in New Delhi, where we met up with the other New Zealand students and their teams. This included a trip to the Taj Mahal, a couple of nights out in Delhi, and more preparation for the presentation. I was invited to stay a night at Dhruv's family home on the outskirts of the city. Meeting and living with an Indian family, and eating home cooking was one of the best cultural experiences of the trip - nothing beats Grandma's cooking! Along with Evie, I also visited Pooja's house (our UC contact in Delhi), for a meal with her family too!
Culturally this has been an experience like no other. Being thrown in the deep end, away from any other Kiwi's, forced me into total immersion - it was awesome. It turns out that Indian students are as political as we are, and seeing the world through a different "cultural lens" allowed me to challenge my own views in a new way. Even the presentation offered plenty of new experiences. Indian judges definitely don't hold back in comments, and presenting to such an esteemed audience might have had me a little nervous.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside so many inspirational people. It may be a cliché, but this trip was definitely life changing. Not only seeing, but experiencing and getting involved in such a different culture has given me a whole new perspective on the world. Learning about all of the other team's projects has me so excited for the future, that winning the competition is only a bonus. Having been given permission to implement VaxiBead in the Udupi District (pop ~1.1m), there are big things to come for the project. I am endlessly thankful to UCE and Education NZ for giving me this opportunity, and I can't wait to show Dhruv, Saisri, and Arun around when they come to New Zealand in March!