SMART Program Hosts 23rd Annual Symposium and Wharton Award Dinner

By: Mary Lorson
A group of six people hold an award plaque.

From left, Wharton Award honorees Peter Matlon (2008), Ronnie Coffman (2023), and Fenton B. Sands Jr. (2024) with Cornell SC Johnson College Dean Andrew Karolyi; SMART program executive director Fridah Mubichi-Kut; and Ralph Christy, Emerging Markets Program director and founder of SMART.

In April, the Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Teams (SMART) program hosted its annual dinner celebrating student projects and presenting the 2024 Wharton Award to agricultural economist Fenton B. Sands Jr. SMART offers students and faculty global service-learning and research opportunities at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, part of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

The Wharton Award celebrates the enduring contributions of pioneering Black economist Clifton R. Wharton, who worked with the Rockefeller Foundation in Southeast Asia and was president of Michigan State University, CEO of TIAA-CREF, and Deputy Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton.

“The Wharton Award dinner acquaints SMART students with the individuals on whose shoulders they stand,” SMART founder and applied economics and policy professor Ralph Christy said. “This year’s honoree exemplifies global service.” Sands spent 26 years working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and continues to consult for USAID headquarters and missions throughout Africa and South America.

In his remarks, Sands credited his late father’s life of global service as ideal preparation for his own career as an international agricultural expert. Fenton B. Sands Sr. was a Cornell undergraduate and original Tuskegee Airman who earned his PhD in agriculture from Cornell in 1954.

“Try to be aware of unintended benefits awaiting behind seemingly intractable challenges,” the younger Sands advised, describing a development project with a tobacco company – a “pariah industry” and non-starter until Sands uncovered a formal international agreement to help the industry diversify away from tobacco. This “green light” led to a business diversification strategy that saw smallholder farmers in Malawi adopt peanuts, soybeans, and sunflowers in lieu of tobacco, in keeping with shifting global health priorities. The stakeholders are now generating sustainable profits. “Sometimes you have to make a major strategic change of your mind and position.”

Meet the SMART 2024 student teams and their research projects

SC Johnson College Dean Andrew Karolyi commended the students for their work. “Our college is tremendously proud to support experiential learning that has a global impact, as this work does, especially in parts of the emerging market world where the work can help transform.”

SMART projects match students and faculty with communities and organizations to apply research to real problems. This year, SMART engaged 34 undergraduate and graduate students and 12 faculty and staff from the SC Johnson College of Business, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Arts & Sciences, the Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, the College of Veterinary Medicine, and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The students worked on eight projects focused on trade and market development, labor market participation, women’s empowerment, agricultural technology adoption, and health care access.

SMART executive director Fridah Mubichi-Kut led two project teams focused on identifying strategies for promoting sustainable apiculture (beekeeping) development in Rwanda.

  • The first team, Promoting Sustainable Beekeeping in Rwanda, included Molly Corley, MPA ’25, Bohua Duan, MS ’25, Yuhan Zhong, MPS ’25, and Rajat Acharjee ’26 and worked closely with the Rwandan agriculture and animal resources development board to identify strategies to strengthen the national apiculture program’s research and extension efforts.
  • The second project, Ethical Beekeeping and Sustainable Public-Private Partnerships, saw Grace Dorward ’26, Rhealynn Ravarra, MPS ’24, and Arya Shekarandaz, MPA ’24, working closely with private organic beekeeping company ROBEEC to identify factors that contributed to the success of apiculture enterprises.

Both teams concluded that adopting a public-private partnership (PPP) framework that prioritized harmonizing existing stakeholders would improve access to modern production equipment, marketing of value-added products, and beekeeping knowledge. A PPP also could offer new opportunities for leveraging the human, financial, and infrastructure capacities essential to research and extension efforts.

College of Veterinary Medicine associate professor of practice Lorraine Francis led two project teams to Ghana focused on assessing strategies that OKB Hope Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Osei Boateng ’18, MHA ’20, could adopt to promote healthcare access in rural Ghana.

  • Knowing that faith healers are trusted and influential in rural Ghana, the first team, Sierra Kinsler ’24, Sofia Rubinson ’24, Caled Al-Adsani, MPA ’25, and Nia Clements, MPH ’24, explored Engaging Faith Healers to Promote Improved Rural Healthcare Outcomes. The team identified two major categories of religious bodies—religious leaders and faith healers—whose motivations and attitudes toward formal medical care influenced their willingness to collaborate with healthcare providers. They also determined that, despite Ghana being in good standing and actively engaged with the United Nations, the country struggled to adopt and enforce UN guidelines for faith healing practices due to various social cultural and economic barriers.
  • Five students pose by the poster describing their research.
    Sholape Fashemo, Rachel Poovathoor, Micere Mugweru, Kristie Chu, and Michelle Addae-Kumi conducted a feasibility study of health care in rural Ghana.

    The second team worked to Determine the Feasibility of Community-Based Health Insurance (CBHI). Sholape Fashemo ‘24, Kristie Chu ’24, Micere Mugweru ’25, Rachel Poovathoor, MPA ’25, and Michelle Addae-Kumi, MPH ’24, explored three feasibility measures—existing policies, cost, and ease of implementation—and found that the current national health policies would not favor the development of CBHI because the government is heavily invested in providing universal health coverage. Despite OKB enjoying a high degree of trust among communities it serves, the cost, implementation, and sustainability of a CBHI would not be feasible given the uncertain market size, organization size, and capacity to scale the product, among other reasons.

Other 2024 SMART projects included:

  • Enhancing Online Presence: Developing a Website for E&E Green Farms, founded by Rose Muhumuza ’22 in Rwanda: Applied Economics and Management PhD candidate Hongdi Zhao and teammates Abbie Jobe ’26, Stephy Chen ’25, Lucas Xu ’23, MPS ’24, and Muhammad Hani Ahsan, MPA ’24, developed and launched a company website that would promote youth engagement in certified seed production and marketing.
  • Students and faculty discuss a research poster.
    The Rural Farmers Hub team.

    Rural Farmers Hub (RFH), a private agriculture extension startup that uses web-based technology to fill the extension worker gap in Nigeria: Led by College of Agriculture and Life Sciences research professor Edward Mabaya, the team consisting of Abdullah Jehanzeb, MPS ’24, Miranda Price ’24, Jose Miguel Maldonado, MPS ’24, Kushal Kumar Reddy, MS ’24, Huda Mehdi Shah, MPA ’24, and Fulbright Fellow John B. “J.B.” Babadara developed a marketing strategy that would support the startup in penetrating the market and further developing their digital agriculture product.

  • South-South Dialogue: Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are a major force in the Global South trade, yet they are overlooked. Professors Ralph Christy and Iwan Azis led a team consisting of Grace Ryan ’24, Barbara Patycka, MPA ’25, Keya Dutta ’24, and Mutty Un ’26 in exploring avenues to promote institutional focus on SME cooperation and sustainable economic development. They proposed a South-South conference in 2025 with Indonesia as a viable host.
  • Early Vows, Economic Barriers: Women’s Work in Nigeria: Gender equality is UN Sustainable Development Goal No. 5, yet significant gaps persist in women’s earnings and participation in the sub-Saharan labor market. Mubichi-Kut and Zhao worked with Elizabeth Arrazola, MPS ’24, Arsham Bari, MPA ’25, Kristin Condon, MPA ’25, and Bea Radtke ’26, as well as Nneka Osadolor of Nigerian nongovernmental organization Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI). They measured the effects of childhood marriage on women’s education, opportunities, and earning capacity and offered a range of actions to promote awareness and dialogue.

At evening’s end, Mubichi-Kut commended student teams for having successfully shared team responsibilities. From their aplomb in the face of field challenges including “going on an unexpected four-kilometer uphill hike to a partner site, to their resolutions of initial internal challenges, they built real bonds of collaboration and friendship and delivered productive work for their partners.”