Bhattarai ’15 Wins Davis Peace Prize

Monday, April 7, 2014 - 9:00am
Prarthana Bhattarai ’15

Conventional wisdom says that change happens one small thing at a time. But Prarthana Bhattarai ’15 has figured out a way to make it happen in triplicate.

Her plan? Bring together Nepalese women across a socioeconomic divide to work together toward a solution for a public health problem.

The fix? Encourage the use of biomass briquettes as a safer alternative to firewood for cooking fuel.

The added benefit? The briquettes are made by processing a fast-growing invasive shrub that threatens to overrun local forests and agricultural landscapes.

Bhattarai’s plan is a change-making trifecta — and the grantors at the Davis United World College Scholars Program think her idea is one worth funding.

Bhattarai, a mathematics major from Nepal, is one of 103 winners of the 2014 Davis Projects for Peace, which aims to fund — in amounts up to $10,000 — grassroots initiatives that “promote peace address the root causes of conflict.” The prize, which is awarded to undergraduates at more than 90 institutions in the United States, must be put to use in the summer following the announcement of the award. Bhattarai is scheduled to return to Nepal to begin work on June 1.

“I am really excited for the project,” Bhattarai said. “Right now, I don’t really know exactly what direction I’m going to take after I graduate, but I know I want to work in the space of economic development, and how business in the developing world can address issues of poverty.”

For Bhattarai, the project is truly a Mount Holyoke one. As a sophomore, she was encouraged by Instructional Technologist Mary Glackin to explore the work of Evgenia Sokolova ’01, who directs the finance team at international benefit corporation Embark Energy. Bhattarai then interned with Sokolova on site in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2013, and was able to see first-hand the results of the company’s work in reducing energy poverty through the use of tools like biomass briquettes.

That observation led her to realize the larger potential for bringing biomass briquettes to her native country.

“I realized a lot of the ways that the product can be transferred to Nepal also,” Bhattarai said.

That included using it as a device to help people build bridges across differences that to some might seem insurmountable. And while the caste system in Nepal is gradually becoming less restrictive, Bhattarai said, the discrimination it creates still affects the lives of millions of people.

“I’m from the higher side of the caste, so I haven’t really myself experienced the discrimination that other people have experienced,” she said, adding that it was common to see people barred from engaging in community activities because of their social status. “It’s something that has affected me growing up in that society.”

When she returns to Nepal, Bhattarai will travel to the small village of Kottandi to work with a local organization — Shrijansheel Mahila Samuha (SMS), which Bhattarai said translates loosely to “Constructive Women’s Society — in conducting workshops to assist villagers in the production of the briquettes.

The hope, she said, is to produce enough so that residents can get a clear sense of the briquettes’ value.

“The first aim is to produce enough so that people won’t have to use firewood,” she added.

At the same time, Bhattarai will be training SMS members in biomass briquette production so that workshops can continue, even after Bhattarai returns to South Hadley.

“That’s how I’m planning to make the project sustainable,” she said. “That they act as an intermediary between me and the residents that produce the briquettes.”

Bhattarai said she owes much to her Mount Holyoke experience, and to the tools the College has given her. She said her liberal arts education, and her mathematics training in particular, has prepared her to think conceptually and quickly break down problems into component parts.

“I’m really excited to learn from this project so I have a better understanding of what I’ll be doing next,” she said. “At this point, my field of interest is to bring these issues of business and poverty together. It’s something I want to explore professionally or academically in the future.”