By Peter Walker for CNN
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(CNN) -- When most MBA students take on practical business exercises their main ambitions are a bit of useful experience and a good grade.
However, one group from a US business school might end up achieving something a little more significant -- changing the world.
The five students from the Olin School of Business, part of Washington University in St Louis, joined forces to tackle a project set by the school's Center for Experiential Learning.
Sponsored by the non-profit World Agricultural Forum, the task was seemingly simple: look into the possibilities of using alternative fuels such as ethanol or soy biodiesel in developing countries.
The students brought with them a useful range of skills -- for example, aspirant MBA Jake Schnarre had an undergraduate degree in agriculture systems management and grew up on a farm.
"In my professional life, I work at Emerson Electric and don't get a lot of chances to utilize the skills from my original degree," he said. "I thought the practicum would give me a chance to do something in that field."
Meanwhile, fellow team member Kevin Lehnbeuter had a degree in plant genomics and the third MBA student, Tom Stehl, had already worked in developing countries.
Although the WAF was keen on plans such as massive, US-scale biofuel processing facilities in developing nations, the team doubted this was the best way and hit upon a new concept -- jatropha, a plant indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa.
Primarily used as a hedge because it is very hardy and inedible, oil can be extracted from the seeds of the jatropha plant and used for generating engines, stoves or lamps.
It is a far more productive means of growing plants for fuel -- one hectare of jatropha can produce 1,800 liters of oil, against 446 liters for a hectare of soybeans.
This meant, the team calculated, that remote communities could run a basic electrical generator eight hours a day for an entire a year on just nine hectares of jatropha.
"Once they have the power to run the engine, there are three or four other tools that they can power," Schnarre noted.
"And with those tools there is a series of benefits that result. The grain mill will be labor-saving. The generator can power lights or a water pump to clean water. The generator would also power the oil expeller for extracting more oil from the plant."
Another idea from the team was using regional cooperative of villages to run a multi-function power unit, improving the quality of life -- for example by pumping water or powering refrigeration to store medicine -- helping small cottage industries and even allowing for the sale of excess oil to other cooperatives.
"The individual communities would need to purchase the power unit," Lehnbeuter said. "They need to have a stake in the success of the unit, and the use of the generator has to be operated like a business or a small co-op. It would be owned by the community and people would put their own money and effort into it so they could enjoy the benefits of it."
The team presented their findings to the WAF and an audience including UN officials and current and former executives from multinational companies.
They were impressed.
"I had never heard of jatropha before, but now a lot of people are talking about it," said Don Kloth, retired vice president of Anheuser-Busch and a board member on the WAF forum.
Although the WAF does not directly invest in projects, it has kept Schnarre on board to continue working on the scheme.
"The fact that I can say that this project is actually happening and improving people's lives leaves me with a sense of great satisfaction and happiness," said political science BA Stephen Gabster, one of the non-MBA team members.
"The fact that we were able to present to and meet with the type of world leaders who can actually effect real change still amazes me."
One option: a U.S. ethanol production plant.
FACT BOXFT's Executive MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Hong Kong UST, China
3. London Business School, UK
4. Instituto de Empresa, Spain
5. Fuqua, Duke, U.S.
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Columbia, U.S.
8. Kellogg, U.S.
9. Stern, NY, U.S.
10. Cass, City University, UK
Source: Financial Times 2006
FACT BOXEMBA SNAPSHOT
Executives taking the top EMBA courses in the U.S., Europe and Asia have average salaries of around $130,000 to $200,000.
A typical EMBA student is likely to be aged in the early 30s, with 6-10 years of working experience.
A top EMBA course can cost $100,000. Customized courses start at a few thousand dollars.