Waterloo students collaborate on sustainable solutions at SDG Impact Challenge

Thursday, March 23, 2023

SDG Impact Challenge 2023 students, organizers and judges

India-based Avani Bio Energy invited students from across faculties to propose environmental and upskilling solutions to help scale their efforts.

By: Krista Henry (she/her)

The focus of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Impact Challenge was to come up with sustainable ways to scale efforts to support growth for a remote Indian community. The event offered students a purposeful and impactful experience that is intended to motivate them to seek experiences abroad and widen their global perspective.

The third annual hackathon-styled event invited Waterloo undergraduate and graduate students to design sustainability solutions for India-based Avani Bio Energy. The challenge took place on Friday, March 10 and Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Alumni Hall at Waterloo’s United College.

Seven student teams from the Faculties of Mathematics, Environment, Engineering, Science and Health presented implementation-ready solutions. The challenges included creating employment for people of the Uttarakhand villages (Avani’s headquarters), increasing biodiversity, and reducing carbon emissions.

Rajnish Jain, founder of AvaniRajnish Jain
Founder of Avani

“The challenge we now face is how do we scale,” explains Rajnish Jain, founder of Avani. “This project requires a lot of capacity building of people and funding to give biodiversity a chance to thrive.”

Avani works in the sub-central Himalayas of Uttarakhand to tackle environmental issues including forest fires, biodiversity loss and access to clean energy.

The organization employs people in surrounding villages to collect fallen pine needles before they burn in rampant forest fires.

Pine needles are then converted into clean and affordable energy, reducing carbon emissions and regenerating biodiversity.

“When my wife and I moved there years ago it was a leap of faith,” says Jain. “The area had no electricity or running water. We started working to bring in solar energy and helping to educate and train local youth.”

Using student talent to help the environment

The villages of the Uttarakhand area have a fragile ecosystem and are comprised of 50-100 households.

Avani often hires Waterloo co-op students to provide support and was the 2019 Employer Impact Award recipient for Impact in Sustainability. For the hackathon challenge, Avani was looking for decentralized local initiatives to benefit the communities instead of large-scale solutions.

“Sustainability is about producing where you are living,” says Jain. “I’m very interested to see how students tackle the challenges of upskilling people and handle carbon estimations."


Each team, comprised of three or four students, pitched their presentations at the end of the two-day event. The solutions required an interdisciplinary approach and showcased how students can impact the SDGs.

“Sustainability in business is a fast-growing area of interest and one that students can contribute to throughout their careers,” says Shabnam Ivković, Director of International Strategic Initiatives at Waterloo’s Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) unit.


Students with a career purpose rooted in caring for our planet and those who share it, can make an impact on the SDGs.



Jain praised the students' presentations as being both rational and logical to implement. “I liked the strategies and carbon calculations that the students did. This is really the way to go,” says Jain. “The presentations were amazing and the solutions were very varied. There are insights to choose from to implement.” 

SDG impact challenges and solutions

SDG impact challenge winners

Winners of the challenge and Rajnish Jain holding SDG goal placards Congratulations to the winners of the five $500 cash prizes (from left to right): Ajay Singh, Young Jun Joo, Ayman Mahin Gostar,  Dhruv Bhutani and Karl Zhu.

By participating in the event, students had the chance to win one of five $500 CAD cash prizes.

The SDG impact challenge is a collaboration between CEE, the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE) and Impact Alliance. The event was sponsored by Waterloo’s Powering Change program, funded by Global Skills Opportunity and the Queen Elizabeth Scholars as part of a commitment to community-sharing and motivating students to seek experiences abroad to widen their global perspectives.