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Young innovators wow judges with practical, home-grown solutions

Friday July 26 2019

My Little Big Thing’ Competition

Ruth Wanjiru, Stephen Muchiri and Cynthia Nkanai came up with outstanding innovations and emerged victorious at the My Little Big Thing’ Competition. PHOTO | POOL | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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A meticulous innovator, a compassionate social entrepreneur, and a zealous agent of change.

This description aptly defines the three winners of the just concluded ‘My Little Big Thing Competition’ that was held on July 11 at the Michael Joseph Centre in Nairobi.


Organised by MK-Africa, Safaricom, University of Cambridge South Africa and PKF, the competition brought together more than 100 students from various Kenyan universities, with the sole aim of inspiring students to devise home grown solutions to Africa’s most pressing challenges. Three students' ideas stood out from the rest.

Cynthia Nkanai, a First Year student of Public Policy and Administration at Kenyatta University, finished third with her ‘Keep a Child Warm’ project where she makes improvised blankets for distribution to street families, whom she also mentors.

Ruth Wanjiru, who recently graduated with a Project Management degree from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), was second with her ‘Power in Plastics’ project which encourages the re-use and recycling of plastics to empower low income communities.


The winning project was the presentation of Auto-alcoblow, an alcohol detection and monitoring system from Stephen Muchiri, who recently graduated from JKUAT with a degree in Control and Instrumentation.

Stephen’s idea carried the day. His auto-alcoblow invention was inspired by a scary experience he had at the hands of a drunk driver.

“Early last year, when I was travelling home from Nairobi, I arrived very late at night, and decided to hire a taxi. Because of it was late at night, there was only one taxi left, so I took it, not knowing that the driver was inebriated.

“He drove carelessly, constantly making dangerous swerves on the road, and braking abruptly on several occasions. It was by sheer luck that I got home safely.”


After that experience, Stephen resolved to do something to ensure that no one suffered the same ordeal, or worse, had to lose their life because of drunk driving.

His personal gift to the world is auto-alcoblow, an advanced alcohol detection and monitoring system. This device uses sensors that can disable a car’s ignition in the event that the driver is intoxicated and unfit to operate the vehicle. The system measures the blood alcohol concentration levels of a driver through their breath, and compares it to a pre-set standard before taking appropriate action.

What’s more, Stephen’s system can also deter drivers who start drinking while driving.

“In such a case, the system will detect a change in alcohol concentration and give the driver a warning to pull over and park the vehicle safely within five minutes. If he doesn’t, the car will decelerate slowly until it grinds to a halt. The system also causes the car’s hazard lights to come on as it decelerates, to caution motorists who may be driving behind it,” he says.

The system also sends a text message to the drunk driver’s close associate and informs them that the he is not in a position to drive.

The competition’s themes were poverty alleviation, hunger prevention, accessibility to quality health care, improvement of the quality education and gender equality. These are the first five Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The participants were required to dig deep, draw inspiration from ordinary experiences, and come up with an extraordinary innovation.

For Cynthia, seeing street families braving the cold without warm clothing was hard. She couldn’t stand seeing the young ones suffer. She resolved to do something to change the existing norm where street families are treated as hopeless outcast.


According to data from the World Bank, more than 14.6 million Kenyans live below the international poverty line. For Ruth, these are not mere statistics, but a grim reminder that so many families in Kenya are unable to afford basic needs. She saw an opportunity to kill two birds. By incorporating street families to collect and sell plastic waste, she would also tackle the problem of irresponsible plastic waste disposal in the country.

The goal of Cynthia’s ‘Keep a Child Warm’ initiative is to keep homeless children warm.

“We make improvised blankets using recycled gurney bags, fibre and ‘lesos’ to keep them warm at night when they are on the streets. When distributing these items, I speak to the street families and mentor them. I try to make them feel loved and welcomed in the society. Those who agree to it are taken to children’s homes for rehabilitation, with the aim of re-uniting them with their families,” she said.

Also, she is the cofounder of ‘This is Me’, a movement that conducts feeding programs for street children, and also connects them with their families.

Ruth, who emerged runners up, had a brilliant initiative by the name ‘Power in Plastics’. She created it with the aim of easing the burden of poverty the community, while at the same time actively participating in protecting the environment.

She believes that plastics can be a tool for economic empowerment for low income earners, especially those in slums.


“I took three approaches. First, is to re-use plastics to make decoration material for fancy home or office events. Second is to offer to buy plastics from collectors at Sh30 per kg, instead of the current market wage of Sh15 per kg. Finally, we allow direct exchange of plastics, for basic items such as maize flour and sanitary towels. This way, we use what is considered waste to achieve economic empowerment,” she says.

Ruth hopes to also incorporate high school students in his initiative. She plans to make them aware of the SDGs, and equip them with the skills necessary for them to earn an income.

She believes that by doing this, her initiative will be different and more impactful than other plastic management systems.

The three winners are set to attend the Cambridge University Sustainability Practitioners Programme in South Africa next month, and upon their return, they will enter a three month incubation period to further improve their projects.

Corporates have begun coming on board, with some even pledging to offer assistance in commercialising these ideas. With this support, Stephen’s system could make our roads safer, Ruth’s dream of empowering low income earners and recycling plastic will be a reality, and street families will no longer suffer in the streets thanks to Cynthia’s innovation.