MBA student team makes an impact on Northern Territory laundry project
Five Melbourne Business School students are helping an innovative Indigenous-run project to improve health and economic outcomes for remote communities.
As part of their MBA, the students worked with the Aboriginal Investment Group (AIG) to strengthen a project that provides converted shipping container laundromats to outback communities.
The goal of the Remote Laundries Project is to prevent the spread of scabies, a skin condition that can cause serious heart and kidney disease. Scabies is a widespread health issue and can affect up to half the children in some Indigenous communities.
"When we first got the project, it seemed like such a mountain we had to climb in terms of approaching this scabies problem, which causes more damage than what you would think," says Tom Hyatt, a Full-time MBA candidate.
"It's caused by mites burrowing into your skin and when you start scratching the skin where the mite is, blood can get infected because of dirt beneath the fingernails, and this can lead to rheumatic heart disease."
Tom and his classmates Josh Robinson, Carolina Beunza, Gavin Chung and Wai San Lam were tasked with helping the AIG to find a way to fund more Remote Laundries.
"Our goal was to help AIG demonstrate the social return of investment of the Remote Laundries Project in terms of government savings, so they could better pitch the project to future sponsors and roll out more laundries into other communities," Tom says.
AIG is a not-for-profit that has been providing free washing and drying services to the Barunga community since early 2019, which has had a positive impact on reducing skin sores and scabies prevalence.
The remote laundry in Barunga also employs five Indigenous community members, and AIG wants to install six more laundries across the Territory.
"We pulled together our strengths and individual learnings from the MBA, alongside lots of secondary research, to essentially come up with a solution that would help more remote laundries to be built,” Tom says.
Many organisations treat scabies-related blood disorders with antibiotics and other topical medicines, which can leave the mites causing the problem unaffected. The laundromats, which cost around $180,000 each to build, install and run, work to stop the problem before it occurs.
"We were able to leverage AIG's connections in the remote communities to complete our research and gather a large data set that we could use to analyse and quantify the prevalence of treatable diseases prior to and after a Remote Laundry was installed," says team member Josh Robinson.
"We then used this data to analyse and quantify the prevalence of treatable diseases prior to and after a Remote Laundry was installed.
"From this research, we were able to build a comprehensive economic model that demonstrated the social and economic impact that each laundry was having in its community."
The Melbourne-based students began work on the project in March, but when COVID-19 intervened their tasks became harder, especially for Wai San Lam who was locked down in Singapore.
"Wai San was a few hours behind us in Singapore, but that actually worked to our benefit as it allowed him to focus on building out the economic model with AIG's information," Tom says.
"The model pulled together a range of information on the communities, such as demographics, population, infection rates and other medical data, which demonstrated to potential clients the benefit a laundromat could have in these remote communities.
"We managed to find information from the Australian Government through our secondary research that helped us calculate our final figure, which was $500,000 in benefits for a single year to an Indigenous community, including treatment costs, employment and quality of life."
In the course of their research, the students came across the case of one Aboriginal girl who had been treated 35 times for scabies, given 17 antibiotic injections for sores and hospitalised twice – all before the age of eight – which pushed them to soldier on.
"The prevailing view of our team was that this project was impossible, and we were not going to be able to get it done, like it's just not going to work," Josh says.
"But then we just kept persevering and trying different things until we found a way to help the people affected. The research opened my eyes to working in a not-for-profit organisation."
The students' final report was presented to AIG’s CEO Steve Smith and Chief Operating Officer Alexa Gutenberger, who worked with the team to develop a social return on their investment calculation for the laundry project.
"The way the team embraced the topic and worked with us to understand our business model was excellent," Alexa says.
"The task we set out for the team to achieve in a short time frame of only five days was massive. But the team owned it and approached their work with enthusiasm and commitment, which was showcased by the outstanding output presented back to us.
"Their skills in project management and communication despite working remotely through the pandemic was very professional.
"Overall, their work is critical for the growth of our project because it provided confirmation of how valuable our project is, not only in health gains and employment opportunities we see, but in the broader impact of the project and savings for the government.
"We will use the work done by the team to target sponsors for funding and support. I believe if we engaged a professional firm to do the work the students did, it would have cost us around $50,000."
For Josh, the positive feedback from AIG illustrated how much of an impact students can have using skills from their MBA.
"The feedback that Steve and Alexa gave us was nothing short of phenomenal, and for me that was probably the highest praise that I had received for a piece of work in my career," he says.
"My biggest takeaway from all this was if you can get yourself into the right place, you can really make a difference with the skills that you have learnt prior to school and as part of the MBA.
"This difference isn't just about making a share price increase or getting a bonus at the end of the year, but actually saving and impacting people's lives, now and over a ten, twenty- or thirty-year period."
To help support the initiative, visit the Remote Laundries Project website.
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