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Chris Owen
Michael O'Day introduces his plans to build affordable housing in Madagascar. O'Day and his business partner won first prize and $13,000 at a social venture competition.

When Michael O'Day served his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Madagascar, he would always ask the people what was going on in their lives.

The typical answer was, "Nothing."

But he said he could always tell something wasn't quite right. Upon further probing, he started to sense a theme among Madagascan people. Many didn't have the money to feed their children or send them to school. But it wasn't for a lack of jobs.

It was their rent.

Now O'Day with his partner, Lacee Curtis, are working to alleviate some of the strain for rent — which can be up to 50 percent of a typical Madagascan's income, according to O'Day — with their social venture called Trano Mirary. The Trano Mirary company provides quality housing for all budgets. The company uses innovative technology and Lego-like bricks to construct houses at 50 percent of the cost in one-tenth of the time.

The only thing O'Day was worried about was money to launch this campaign, but today the pair won $13,000 through Brigham Young University's Social Venture Competition, sponsored by BYU's Ballard Center for Economic Self-Reliance. Ten thousand of that was because they won first prize out of the three finalists, and $3,000 was for winning the student choice award.

O'Day said this money will definitely help them get started. In fact, he plans to have at least one house built before he and Curtis even get to Madagascar in May.

"I couldn't be more excited about how things are going," O'Day said.

The duo first had a nonprofit organization in Madagascar, called the Madagascar Cooperative Foundation, which they will continue run. But starting the for-profit Trano Mirary will help make their dreams more scalable, according to Curtis. They want to build 30,000 homes within the next 10 years.

"When a lot of people talk about Africa, it's in Ghana and Kenya, but there's a lot of ignorance about the situation in Madagascar," Curtis said. "There's a lot of good to be done."

The second-place award in the competition went to Achatina Snail Farms, which fosters small Ghanaian farmers cultivating snails, an iron-rich food source, to better meet a 13,000-ton import demand. This team won $4,000 for its cause. They plan to use a microfranchise model method, giving farmers a kit with 1,000 snails, a hutch, feed and a loan of $360 to start the farm.

Third place went to ServeSurfer, which uses social media networks to connect volunteers with nonprofits through a Facebook App. They received $1,000.

Aaron Miller, the faculty advisor for these groups, said the competition gives incentives to the teams to do well because of the immediate cash prizes, as well as helping them prepare for the day when they will be pitching their product to venture capitalists, investors and entrepreneurs.

"For students to have that experience of actually pitching to potential investors — it's an experience they can't get anywhere else," Miller said.

Email: tackerman@desnews.com