Developing Holistic Solutions for Socially Disadvantaged (SDA) Communities in the Southwest

Since 2012 AATech developed 20+ community-based programs, attracted over $3M federal fund for Socially Disadvantaged groups in the Southwest

Photo of Ilse Rojas
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Written by


  • I am not an employee of BNY Mellon, or an immediate family member of a BNY Mellon employee
  • I am over 18 years of age
  • My organization is incorporated as a non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid organization, or I have a partner that is incorporated and could accept funds on my behalf
  • I have already piloted my initiative and have some initial evidence of impact
  • My organization is headquartered and creating impact in the United States


  • Woman

Where are you making a difference?

Sells (85634), Tucson (85746), San Carlos (85550), Leupp (86035), Birdsprings (86047), Tolani Lake (86047), Cameron (86020), Flagstaff (86004), Winslow (86047), Kykotsmovi Village (86039), Tuba City (86045), Somerton (85350), Parker (85344), Fountain Hills (85269), Sacaton (85147), Supai (86435)...

Focus Areas (required)

  • Business & Social Enterprise
  • Children & Youth
  • Civic Engagement
  • Development & Prosperity
  • Environment & Sustainability
  • Health & Fitness
  • Human Rights & Equality
  • Peace & Harmonious Relations

Date Started


Organization Type

  • for-profit

Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Scaling (expanding impact to many new places or in many new ways)


  • $100k - $250k

Website or social media URL(s) (optional)

Twitter URL


Facebook URL


LinkedIn URL


1.Founding Story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this to succeed.

In 2010, AATech, a minority owned consulting firm, was founded to apply science/technology to change people’s lives. In 2012, working with U of A on a socially disadvantaged groups outreach program, Dr. Jing Luo, Founder of AATech, visited San Carlos Apache Tribe, then Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Tohono O’odham Nation. She learned in one of the world richest countries, native people still live a subsistence lifestyle that is strictly tied to the landscape conditions. ~ 40% of the families live in poverty suffering extremely high rate of diabetes and other diseases. Many live in the houses with no running water or electricity. From that point on, AATech decided to solely focus on helping socially disadvantaged groups and communities.

2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

NM & AZ are home to over 480,000 Native Americans living in 44 federally recognized reservations including Navajo (NN) & Tohono O’odham (TON), which are the 2 largest tribes in the US. Challenges identified: -Poverty: Native Americans in the SW suffer from persistently high poverty rates (as high as 40%) -Public health concerns: high rate of diabetes and other diet-related diseases -Water safety: people live with no running water/electricity

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

Our solution is to develop true community-based programs in Socially Disadvantaged (SDA) communities by applying advanced technologies, nourishing positive relationships, promoting sustainability & creating shared knowledge/value. 23 programs were developed together with SDA entities in several Native American tribes, where AATech facilitated the dev. and imp. of innovative solutions to resolve pressing challenges faced by the community. Working closely with SDA partners, we provide outreach/public education, & technical assistance on feasibility study/business planning, engineering, technology demo., hands-on training, and grant writing/admin. Approaches are: Poverty: Develop programs around business development, community facilities, job training & capacity building. Facilitate commercial land dev. Public health: Develop programs on community food, sustainable farming, local food production, marketing & distribution. Facilitate the dev. of regional food hubs. & water safety: we invented an off-grid on-site water treatment system, 100% powered by solar. Working with our community partner, we facilitate the dev. of community water coop to provide safe drinking water to Navajos.

4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of how your solution is working to solve the problem.

Water is vital to human lives. ~40% of Navajo households (50K+ people) have no access to public water system. AATech developed a fully automatic off-grid water treatment system (WTS) that can be installed at remote areas & provide safe drinking water to villagers. Each system produces 500-1,000 gal/day to meet 50-100 people’s drinking water needs. We converted a school bus that carries the WTS & is able to produce potable water on-site in remote areas. We are helping STAR School to establish a small non-profit water cooperative to produce & deliver potable water to Navajo residents. We have installed 3 demo WTS & by the end of 2019, 2 more will be installed. Our goal is to strategically place 50 WTS on Navajo Nation (NN) to supply at least 5,000 people. The program will protect the health of Navajos from water-borne diseases & encourage Navajos to drink water vs. sugary drinks.

5a. Too many people in the U.S. have unmet needs for financial products and services. How is your work reaching a population(s) that is currently underserved? If it is not reaching an underserved population yet, how might it in the near future?

AATech works with SDA groups/individuals in the SW. We’ve developed trusting relationships with many Native American groups & organizations. We also work closely with professors at U of A, AZ Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) & SW Indian Agriculture Association (SWIAA) to leverage additional resources & benefit larger SDA population. AZ FRTEP has tribal extension agents in Native American tribes throughout the state. SWIAA members represents most of the tribes in the SW.

5b. Please specify if the population you are reaching is underserved due to any of the following characteristics:

  • geography
  • race/ethnicity
  • socio-economic class

6. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

AATech takes unique approaches & targets the most pressing issues faced by the SDA groups/ communities. We develop holistic solutions that are tailored to meet the specific needs of each organization. Most uniquely and importantly, AATech brings both technical and financial solutions to the table. Through 23 programs, we have successfully brought in over $3M to help SDA groups/communities in AZ. This number will increase each year. It is difficult to find other groups that share AATech’s mission of developing holistic solutions to improve the quality of lives in SDA communities.

7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

In the last 8 years, we’ve made significant impact in Native American communities by addressing issues related to poverty, public health concerns, and water safety. We’ve developed 23 programs in several Native American tribes and reached out to hundreds of SDA youth/adults. We facilitated the planning of 2 large commercial dev. & 3 regional food hubs. We helped build a community cold storage, a grain milling facility, a farm store, 2 large greenhouses, and several water treatment facilities. We’ve attracted over $3M federal funds to SDA communities in AZ, which otherwise won’t be possible. We developed strong relationships with over ten SDA groups and are confident that they will eventually carry on the work within the communities. We will certainly continue to develop programs that will benefit and provide holistic solutions to the historically underserved Native American communities.

8a. Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling your impact?

We expect to expand our services to other SW states (NV, CA, NM & UT). We’ve also organized conferences & hands-on training sessions to implement the “train-the-trainer model” and ensure that local communities are trained to use new tools/technologies to better educate their people. Will explore more funding sources from Federal, state, local governments & private foundations. Will investigate alternative project financing, such as new credit market, revolving fund programs, etc. Will also explore the opportunity to work with USDA & establish the 1st Tribal Cooperative Development Center in AZ

8b. If applicable, which of the following scaling strategies have you launched?

  • Organizational Growth
  • Organizing Conferences
  • Trainings, Consultation
  • Industry Standards (labels, certification, awards, etc.)

9. Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Although our own time/efforts are fully funded by grants, our main focus is to promote the dev. of successful rural business enterprises owned and operated by SDA groups that are self-sustainable technically and financially. We provide on-going assistance on business dev., feasibility study, and business planning. We’ve developed numerous successful business models for rural business enterprises, and now are helping with the implementation. These businesses will be financially sustainable.

10. Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

Project team has 100+ years of combined experience in agriculture education, cooperative extension, economy, risk management, water resources, engineering, renewable energies, project management, & technical grant writing/administration. Dr. Jing Luo, PE, oversees the entire operation of AATech, Mr. Peter Zhou, PE, oversees finances/technology development; Dr. Ilse Rojas, new program development; Ms. Emma Skidmore, coordination existing programs/community outreach, U of A professors, others.

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 1 - Which of the following categories do you identify with? (optional)

  • Hispanic, Latino/a, or Spanish origin (for example: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuba, Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian)

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 2 - Do you identify as part of any of the following underrepresented communities? (optional)

  • No, I do not identify with an underrepresented community

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Ashoka page or contact

Organization name

Apex Applied Technology, Inc. (AATech)

Program Design Clarity

All programs were developed with SDA entities in SDA communities around water, food, and rural business. We organize educational/training workshops and provide TA in business dev., feasibility study, business plan, renewable technologies demonstration, land dev., grant writing/administration. Activities are on-going, carried out in SDA communities by 4 energetic staff (2PhDs, 1MS, 1BS). We work with UA, FRTEP, SWIAA for more resources/expertise.

Approach to financial wellbeing: does your project focus on creating financial wellbeing through innovating on any of the following?

  • education / literacy
  • entrepreneurship
  • other

If you marked "Other" in the question above, please specify:

New jobs/businesses, capacity building/job training, economic development, improved public health by providing safe drinking water/healthy local food.

Innovation type: Please select which of the following types of innovation best characterize your work

  • Process innovation (execution of a new or considerably improved production or delivery method)

Partnerships in detail: tell us about your partnerships that enhance your approach.

Over the years, AATech has developed close partnerships with many entities: •To maximize available resources - UA, AZ FRTEP & USDA •To maximize programs impact to all Indian communities in the Southwest - SWIAA •To create strong bond to the SDA communities - NLFF, PDDP, LCCDC, SXCF, NDC, TOCA, etc. •To gain support from local governments - San Xavier District, Navajo Nation & Navajo County. We also work with individual subject matter experts for knowledge/technologies benefit SDA groups

If you won the Unlocking ₵hange Challenge, how would you invest the prize money of $50,000?

Fund from the Prize will be used as “seed” money to leverage for additional funds from public and private sources that we know at an average of $1 to $3 matching. In another word, $50K investment will almost certain to generate a total of $100K-$150K impact to benefit the underserved groups.

Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions has the project received?

•AATech team received the 2016 “Advocate of the Year Award” by Minority and Small Business Alliance of Southern Arizona. •Our program solving pressing water issues in NN has been featured on National Native News, TV program broadcasted in 25 states, 2017, featured in a cover story of “Arizona Republic”, The University of Arizona College of Engineering Alumni Newsletter, among others.

Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. Overall, would you champion this entry as a excellent example to move forward to the next phase of the challenge and become a semifinalist?

Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 33.3%

2. Is this entry INNOVATIVE?

Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 33.3%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

3. Is this entry IMPACTFUL on financial wellbeing?

Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 33.3%

No - 0%

4. Is this entry SUSTAINABLE?

Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 33.3%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

5. What are some of the HIGHLIGHTS of strengths of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 100%

Clarity of Model - 50%

Clarity of Writing - 50%

Idea Originality - 100%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 50%

Impact measurement - 50%

Impact Potential - 100%

Financial Sustainability - 50%

Team - 50%

Partnerships - 50%

Potential to scale - 50%

6. What are some of the areas for IMPROVEMENT of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 50%

Clarity of Model - 50%

Clarity of Writing - 50%

Idea Originality - 0%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 50%

Impact measurement - 50%

Impact Potential - 0%

Financial Sustainability - 100%

Team - 50%

Partnerships - 0%

Potential to scale - 0%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Sarah Dewees

This looks like a great program, and it is doing important work with communities in the Southwest. I had trouble linking the program to the goals of this initiative which are supporting bold ideas to increase financial wellbeing, ensuring communities can set financial goals, grow their personal savings, and access capital, credit, financial services, and products needed to thrive. More information about the financial empowerment work of this project - financial education, access to credit, etc., would be useful.

Photo of Ilse Rojas

Thank you very much for the comment.
All the projects we initiated started with no funding at all. Native American communities in the Southwest suffer from extremely difficult economic conditions. Through our programs, we provide both technical and financial solutions at the same time. This indeed is the uniqueness of our approach and key to the success. We have leveraged almost $4 million Federal fund invested in historically underserved tribal communities in the Southwest addressing the most pressing needs. The differences we’ve made and will continue to make in these communities indicated that our approach is in support of bold ideas to increase financial well-being, ensuring communities can set financial goals, grow their personal savings, and access capital, credit, financial services, and products needed to thrive. We cannot emphasize enough that proper financing is absolutely critical. The success demonstrated within the community is a great empowerment in many meaningful ways. We organize frequent workshops and training sessions in these communities to provide financial education and business management/operation, etc. We offer 15-20 in-community workshops every year. That is the routine work we do. Again, we are proud that our program provides a holistic solution to effectively address community well-being as a whole.