Vodafone Challenge, part 2: Tailor-made solution to reduce plastic use

Undergrad students at IE University recently had the incredible opportunity to participate in the Vodafone Challenge, in which they had to come up with a novel solution to a social problem. Dual Degree student Caio Marques tells us how the project went and what he learned.

So much has happened since part 1. Looking back, I feel like we did twice the work in the same amount of time: two weeks. Out of all the conclusions we came to over this second half of the project, the one that really stands out is that you must create a tailor-made solution for your target user. I think this lesson is something that will change the way we conduct business in the future.

The project was streamlined in a way that made us reach this conclusion without even realizing. We went from having an idea, to acting as users, then back to the idea, then to applying it to real life.  

The product and its target

While defining our target users, we were unaware of how much of our project we had to change if we wanted to make it a reality. By talking to our ideal customers, we realized how crucial it was for companies to offer consumers alternatives to plastic. However, we also realized that for some products, alternative packaging is just as negative or even worse for the environment as plastic, so sticking to the status quo might actually be the best option. 

But it takes two to tango, and if consumers aren’t driven to recycle, no difference will be made. We found in our research that many users around the world fall into the laid-back category in terms of recycling, be it for restrictions due to their geographical position or the level of economic development in their country. We identified that, for a huge chunk of the population, recycling or reusing plastic would not be done unless it was made easy for them. One example of this is that reusable bags only really gained traction around the world when grocery stores started charging for single-use plastic bags. 

Plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose

Moreover, many people view plastic as a way to stay hygienic—for example, using plastic gloves or a plastic bag to pick up produce in a supermarket. It’s also worth noting that those in the laid-back category feel that it’s companies’ responsibility to reduce plastic usage and that there’s not really much they can do themselves. 

In short, we needed to find a solution that worked better than plastic but implied little to no extra effort for consumers.

A tailor-made solution for customers

In some ways, we were back to square one. We needed to rethink some of our core concepts, and in the end, we changed our main goal—something not uncommon with group work, and which often leads to even better results. We realized that we should not only focus on reducing plastic usage in supermarkets, but offer a solution that gives the end user the same experience they have now, only more sustainable. 

That’s where Akalis was born, our tailor-made solution to plastic waste. If the idea had to be summarized in a tweet, it would be:

A sustainable supermarket model based on virtualization and bulk purchasing, reusing, and eco-friendliness.

Akalis is Silaka backwards, which means cylinder in Maori. 

By consolidating already-known concepts around the world into one business model, we can offer a similar or even better grocery shopping experience to our consumers. Cylinders and bulk purchasing are the core of Akalis, where consumers can either buy new containers and reuse them, or simply bring their own from home. No single-use plastic involved.

The outside of the cylinder can be used to advertise the product, meaning that producers can personalize it in their own way as to attract consumers. And to simplify the checkout process, we looked at models like Amazon Go and Decathlon, which simplify payment with the use of automation and RFID tags. 

As for the checkout ticket, we thought about offering them on biopaper for our consumers, so it can be recycled. 

Last but not least, the reusable containers sold in our store are made either from glass or cotton bags, which are extremely durable and can be used many times. 

However, as we learned, not everything is suitable for our idea. Liquids mainly require a special container to ensure that the product can be kept for longer, and the vast majority of liquids, once opened, can only be kept for a maximum of two to three days. In turn, this means that the effort of transforming them for use in a container-based system is too much work and the benefits too little, though their own container can be recycled. 

Our main takeaways

Our main conclusions from this project are the following: companies shouldn’t waste their time elaborating complicated ways for consumers to be able to recycle, because users might find it too hard to use and the purpose might be defeated. Companies should truly understand their consumers, and tailor solutions that don’t make customers’ everyday lives more complex than they need to be. Instead, they should focus on crafting solutions that either go unnoticed by users, or improve their experience.

Misinformation on recycling is still widespread, and that’s where companies can step up and lead consumers. Such actions taken by businesses are surely appreciated by consumers, and can be used as a marketing stunt, improving the brand’s image. 

This does not, however, completely remove consumer consciousness, meaning they must also do their part. However, we found that by engaging people and giving them a simpler, tailor-made solution for their daily tasks, we can create a better future for everyone. 

Final results

Among the many groups from the many universities competing (I dare say up to 100 groups competed), we ended up being one of the ten finalists. We weren’t one of the top two selected projects, but we’re proud of what we did and are brainstorming ways to incorporate our ideas into people’s daily lives moving forward.

The Akalis group working hard 


caio marques ieCaio Marques, born and raised in Brazil, is currently pursuing a Dual Bachelor in Business Administration and International Relations at IE University in Segovia. He also interns at the IE HST marketing department in Madrid. Passionate about technology, transportation, and smart cities, Caio feels positive about the future—if everyone does their part. He is an avid listener of audiobooks and would love to hear your recommendations. Connect with him here.