Duke Campus Corner: Oryza’s Student Founders Are Transforming Rice Farming

The Oryza team, from left to right: Shrey Majmudar (Business Lead), Amjad Syedibrahim (Tech Lead), Nitin Subramanian (Partnerships Lead), and Maggie Pan (Product Lead).

[Editor’s Note: Campus Corner is a recurring feature in which one of the four major Triangle universities—UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, NC State and NC Central—will feature someone from its entrepreneurial community, anyone from an alum founder to an investor to a professor to a live mascot. Though probably not a mascot. Here are previous entries from UNC and NC State.]

Did you know that rice is a daily staple food for some 45 percent of the globe—about 3.5 billion people? And that rice paddies, especially when intentionally flooded, are a significant emitter of methane and other greenhouse gases? Well, the four Duke sophomores behind Oryza know those things, and they’re doing something about it.

The quartet—Shrey Majmudar (Business Lead), Amjad Syedibrahim (Tech Lead), Nitin Subramanian (Partnerships Lead), and Maggie Pan (Product Lead)—won Duke’s Hult Prize Challenge at the end of last semester, qualifying for the international finals of the Hult Prize. This year’s challenge: Building startups that have a positive impact on our planet with every dollar earned.

Oryza uses sensors to measure soil moisture and then tells farmers via an app when to flood and drain their paddies and how much fertilizer to apply. The primary goals are to increase yields while reducing pollution both from fertilizers and emissions.

Matt Nash, the Managing Director for Social Entrepreneurship at the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, conducted this Q&A with the Oryza team.

Q. How do you start a successful day?
Shrey: I love staying up to date on current events, as it’s easy for students to get caught up in college life and not be cognizant about what’s going on in the world around them. So, my successful day always starts with listening to the New York Times’ flagship podcast called The Daily. I’m proud to be an early adopter of The Daily—I’ve been a religious listener since 2017!

Maggie: Honestly, just simply making the bed. Even when I’m running late, I always make a point to make my bed. It’s an automatic check off of my to-do list, which gets me started on a busy day ahead. I’m also a firm believer in the influence that physical space has on your mind and mood. A clean and organized space makes me feel motivated and clear-minded for work.

Nitin: I love starting my day with a nice big meal. Food always puts me in a better mood and the better tasting the food is, the more cheery I am to start my day.

Amjad: I usually start a successful day by waking up early in the morning around 6:30 and exercising at the gym. This helps prepare my mind and body for the rest of the day. After this, I usually read the news or a book. At this point, I will begin activities for the day.

Q. What was your inspiration for Oryza? Where did you get the idea?
Shrey: Once the Hult Prize 2020 Challenge was released, we sat down for an intense brainstorming session. We knew going into it that we wanted to: solve a bold problem—some multi-faceted, world-pressing issue; affect millions of people with an easy to implement solution; and create a sustainable business in the process. After hours of research, Googling, and whiteboarding, we found three staggering facts: rice is a daily staple food for 3.5 billion people, 1.5% of worldwide methane emissions are from rice flooding, and the average yield gap for rice in India results in an annual loss of ~130.6 million tons of rice (or $56.2 billion USD). Given what pressing problems these are, along with the topic of rice farming being quite personal for our team—we all have extended family members who make a living off of rice farming—we set out to solve the problem.

Q. What is your “theory of change” for how Oryza will achieve social and environmental impact?
Maggie: To create significant social and environmental impact, Oryza mainly aims to create new habits for rice farming. We provide a technological tool that will help farmers reduce their methane emissions, water and fertilizer use, and subsequently give them agency over their crops, their income. We pay them for reducing environmental impact and help them boost their crop yield. We are hoping that we will be able to create partnerships with various farming communities to establish Oryza’s technology and standards as the new norm in order to really transform rice farming into something that is more sustainable and empowering for the farmers. We believe change can start small and expand into something globally transformative.

Q. How will you ensure that Oryza truly meets the needs of your customers?
Nitin: Oryza is a company truly built for the farmers, a particularly vulnerable population in developing countries as these nations aggressively globalize and industrialize. Even when first developing our idea, we reached out to rice farmers through our family and had conversations with them about their exact needs and what kind of services would benefit them. When we discovered that the majority of their problems centered around water management and crippling debt, we resolved to create a company that could help them better manage resources, while monetarily rewarding them for having an impact on the environment. Additionally, over our winter break, we had our team members visiting rice paddies and talking to farmers in India and Thailand validating our current progress and whether we would need to pivot to best help our target population.

Q. How will you measure the impact of Oryza?
Amjad: Being that the two main goals of Oryza are to reduce the emissions due to rice farming and empower farmers economically, the impact measurement will be related to these two criteria. Based on data collected about methane emissions, we will measure the impact based on how many millions of tons have been emitted, and compare it to previous years while looking for a reduction. We will also look at average income levels of farmers in the regions we are serving, to hopefully see and measure an increase. These are two ways we will measure the impact of Oryza.

Q. How would you define social entrepreneurship?
Amjad: Social entrepreneurship is leveraging business strategies to allow for the sustained financial support of a business whose purpose is to serve a social cause, such as environmental conservation, economic empowerment to individuals, providing necessary resources, and much more.

Q. What motivates you to use the power of entrepreneurship to achieve a social impact?
Nitin: “Knowledge in the service of society.” That’s the motto that Duke tries to imbue into its students. Learning about all the problems in our society isn’t enough, and it’s hard to rely on the government to solve every single problem. That’s where the opportunity for social entrepreneurship comes in. Put simply, learning about our world’s problems is the motivating mechanism for our team to use the power of entrepreneurship to achieve a social impact.

Q. How has participating in the Hult Prize competition been helpful to your team?
Maggie: Participating in the Hult Prize has been extremely helpful in that it has given us exposure to a lot of feedback. We were able to meet with several judges, professors, researchers, and past competitors throughout the competition to gain a lot of extremely useful feedback. Each meeting and conversation we’ve had has brought us new ideas, perspectives, and ideas to consider. It has also made us feel really supported and further motivates us to continue working on our business. We honestly could not be here without these mentors we’ve met through the Hult Prize competition.

Q. What is your biggest piece of advice to budding social entrepreneurs on college campuses?
Shrey: A few things come to mind, each of which are equally important for budding social entrepreneurs. First and foremost, it’s never too early! The social entrepreneurship scene is blossoming across the nation, so right now is the perfect time to dive right in; as this space matures, you can help shape it. Second, be bold. No problem is too big to tackle or too small to ignore. Seriously. Third, and finally, utilize the resources at your fingertips! College campuses are a unique place to start, since you have world-renowned faculty members in most fields who are just an email (or short walk) away.

Q. What’s next for Oryza? How will you scale your impact to benefit even more customers after the pilot?
Nitin: We’re looking to implement our pilot and then subsequently pivot based off of what we learned from the pilot. Collecting more data and connecting with farmers across Asia will be key to impacting as many farmers as possible. In the future, we’re looking to not only expand to different rice-growing countries, but also to farmers who grow other grains like wheat. We want to help agriculture become a more sustainable—while remaining profitable—career for all.

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About Matt Nash 1 Article
Matt is the Managing Director for Social Entrepreneurship at the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative.