4 Kenyan innovators whose ideas will blow your mind

Wednesday March 18 2020

Tracy Kimathi is pictured standing in front of a Tree-Sea-Mals mini grid on February 1, 2020. PHOTO | POOL | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Ideas advanced by four innovators representing Kenya this year in a continental engineering competition will leave you nodding.

Two of the creative minds have found novel ways of making the invasive water hyacinth useful, to the point where it can be fed to livestock or where its stems can be fermented to generate liquid fuel.

Another one has discovered how rice husks and other unwanted plant products can be converted into top-notch fertiliser.

That’s not all. One of the innovators has developed a way of creating large solar-powered freezers whose space can be leased out to those who deal in meat and other perishable products in the remote parts of Kenya.

Hear them talk and you will be left wowed by how deep they have searched their imagination banks to come up with the solutions, which beat thousands of entries to be short-listed among the top 15 in Africa.

In last year’s edition of the competition, one of the five Kenyan contestants, Roy Allela, grabbed the headlines with his smart gloves with the ability to transform sign language into audible speech by using a mobile phone application.


This year, the four Kenyan representatives – Jack Oyugi, Richard Arwa, Samuel Rigu and Tracy Oyugi – are battling it out with 11 other Africans from Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda for the top prize of £25,000 (Sh3.3 million) from the organisers.

The four Kenyans were in London two weeks ago where they were taught about pitching ideas. In April, they will be heading to Ghana for a reveal of the winner selected by the judges.

Jack Oyugi: Converting unpalatable hyacinth into animal feed

Mr Oyugi hails from Homa Bay County and many people in his rural community depend on Lake Victoria for their livelihoods. But every so often, the water hyacinth sprouts over the lake waters and locks out virtually everything.

Furthermore, in 2016, his cousin George who had gone fishing in the lake was marooned by the weed for two days and when he tried to navigate his way to the shore, he drowned.

The devastating nature of the hyacinth has made Mr Oyugi examine the plant for long. He knows that cows and other animals hardly eat it even during dry seasons. The farthest they can go, he says, is chew it then spit it out.

After graduating from the University of Nairobi (UoN) in 2013 with a degree in biotechnology, Mr Oyugi briefly worked as a farm manager, where he realised that most farm expenses go into feeds. That is when the thought of converting hyacinth into something animals could feed on became even more prominent in his mind.

A non-governmental organisation supported him in his experiment and in the end, he found a way of extracting a protein from hyacinth that could be boosted and fed to animals.

“After getting the protein from the hyacinth, we mix it with the other materials,” he said.

The end-product is a powder, which he says is affordable. One of its advantages, he says, is that it reduces pressure on sunflower, soya, and other crops used to make animal protein.

Richard Arwa: Chemistry teacher who found hyacinth fuel in science project

Mr Arwa was a teacher at a secondary school in Siaya County in 2016 when he and his two students came up with an idea to present at the Science and Engineering Fair, formerly known as Science Congress.

It was about converting hyacinth into fuel. They presented the first prototype and as they moved from one level to another, they got suggestions on how to improve the innovation.

“By the time we were reaching the national level, we were having a working product,” he remembered.

The following year, they took the same idea to a competition by the National Environment Trust Fund and emerged winners under the secondary school category.

They have since commercialised the idea.

The fuel they sell is created by adding enzymes to hyacinth stalks.

Samuel Rigu: One man’s chaff is his cash earner

Mr Rigu was told this by his grandmother at a young age and it is etched in his memory.

His granny, he recalls, used to tell him that by the time he became an adult, land in their Mukongi village in Nyandarua County would not have the ability to produce food, and so the only solution was to study hard.

That is one of the reasons he chose to study agri-business at UoN. He graduated in 2011 then joined an organisation engaged in advising rural women on how to make agriculture a business.

When he visited Mwea in 2013, he was amazed by the amount of waste that was left behind by rice farmers, largely the husks.

He racked his brains on how to make use of the husks. When he tried to chemically modify the husks to become fertiliser, they produced great results at a farm where he tried them. That was the start of his company.

In 2015, as more and more farmers found the magic of the gel he was selling, he left all engagements to concentrate on that business of making organic fertiliser.

Today, his company has employed 16 people and it has a range of products.

Tracy Kimathi: Plans to sell refrigeration space in off-the-grid areas

That a person who studied environmental science is now into solar energy business seems quite an unconventional path, but unconventional is Ms Kimathi’s portion. She is the only female in the Kenyan list and her dream is to be of assistance to rural communities.

If there is a solar-powered refrigerator that can be leased out to traders, she believes, wastage of food in areas off the electricity grid will be a thing of the past.

To test this model, her company constructed a system in Kaungu village, Meru County, in July last year. It entails roof-mounted panels that charge a battery. The direct current from the battery is converted to alternating current, just like mains electricity, and channelled to two households and a shop.

Ms Kimathi says there was an increase in business at the shop after the installation of the system.

“Based on our evaluation, they’ve increased their income because they started selling cold drinks. And that’s actually where our second innovation came with fridges,” she said.

If it goes on as she has conceived it, she plans to create community solar refrigeration projects in Isiolo and Marsabit counties. The solar panels will be generating electricity that can power households and also cool foodstuff.

“When you rent out storage in the cold rooms, these people will be paying money daily, especially in the market, and that’s where revenue will really be generated,” she said.

If she wins the Sh3.2 million in this year’s competition, she plans to invest in more research.

“Most of it would go into research and development; to get one community that really needs electricity then work on that,” she said.