11/06/2014 12:48 EST | Updated 01/06/2015 05:59 EST

How These Canadians Helped Diabetes in India

roobcio via Getty Images

By: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Dhaman Rakhra is haunted by the boyhood memory of his grandfather plummeting down the stairs. Poorly-controlled diabetes had caused the elderly man to faint. He suffered a broken hip and, in failing health, died months later. Rakhra thought of his grandfather when a colleague told him about a Cambodian girl who'd lost her father to diabetes. As an orphan, she would likely never get the education she needs to fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.

Two lives, worlds apart, affected by diabetes.

If asked to list illnesses that impact impoverished communities, most people cite AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis -- and now Ebola. Few think of diabetes. Yet four out of every five diabetics today live in developing countries, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

With our health care system, diabetes is more easily managed in Canada. But in a developing community, most can't afford a computerized glucometer. So diabetes goes largely untreated, leading to critical complications like blindness, heart disease and kidney failure. Diabetes claims 3.4 million lives every year.

While international health efforts focus on problems like AIDS and Ebola, Rakhra and four other aspiring Canadian social entrepreneurs -- who are all students from York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto -- have applied business sense to fighting diabetes. Their solution, resurrecting a decades-old technology, made them the first-ever undergraduate team to reach the finals of the prestigious Hult Prize.

Every year, the prize challenges business students around the world to develop a commercial solution to a global problem. This year's challenge was to help urban slum dwellers living with a non-communicable disease. The prize comes with $1 million for the winning team to put their plan into action.

For Rakhra and teammates Abbas Khambati, Danica Stanojevic, Luca De Blasis and Hemanth Soni, diabetes was the obvious target; each can name a family member living with the disease.

Earlier this year, they traveled through rural villages in India and the slums of Mumbai, speaking to hundreds of people and learning about the obstacles facing diabetics in such communities. Time and again they heard the key problem was monitoring.

To keep diabetes in check, diabetics must track their blood sugar levels daily to make key decisions about medication and diet. But while the health system in India provides medicines like insulin pills, a glucometer costs as much as 70 per cent of an impoverished Indian's average monthly income. Unable to afford that, diabetics can't manage their condition -- with predictable and tragic results.

Knowing the stakes were high, the team dove into research and discovered that, decades before the invention of glucometers, blood sugar could be tested by urinating on a chemically-treated strip of paper, much like a pregnancy test. The paper turns a different colour based on the amount of sugar in your blood. It's not as accurate as a glucometer, but enough to manage your diabetes. And the strips cost just pennies each. Although obsolete here, they are the ideal solution for developing communities.

The team returned to India to test their solution. Diabetics there were overjoyed with the low cost and simplicity of the test strips. "Once we told people what it was and how easy [it was to use], there was a look of relief on their faces," Khambati says.

The Canadian students developed a business model. For just two dollars, subscribers receive enough test strips for a month. Patients with mobile phones can submit their glucose numbers to get immediate recommendations from medical experts for controlling their diabetes.

According to Khambati, the business can be scaled up to reach millions of people in countries around the world--with little to no funding or intervention from governments or aid organizations.

It's another illustration of the power of social entrepreneurs who are solving the global problems that others miss.

Unfortunately, the team did not walk away with the $1 million Hult Prize in late September. But that's not stopping their progress. They've already been approached by investors wanting to back their enterprise.

Khambati says his team is driven to ensure no one, regardless of income, loses a loved one to diabetes ever again.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


Photo gallery8 Surprising Ways To Lower Your Diabetes Risk See Gallery