From left, Kate Krontiris, Bonolo Matjila, Leroy Mwasaru, and David Moinina Sengeh
Leroy Mwasaru (left) and David Moinina Sengeh
Kate Krontiris (left) and Bonolo Matjila
Founder, Human Waste Bioreactor
David Moinina Sengeh
President and Co-Founder, Global Minimum Inc.
Krontiris: Okay, good morning everybody! My name is Kate Krontiris and I am a fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and I have the thrill of moderating what I think is going to be a fascinating discussion. If you came here this morning looking for some inspiration, I think you’re going to find it in the next 30 minutes or so. So, I’m joined here today by three people. David Sengeh, over on this side of the panel, is a Ph.D. student at the MIT Media Lab, where he designs comfortable 3D-printed prosthetic sockets, and he’s also the co-founder of an organization that works to enable young people to solve problems in their own communities, furthering innovation where they live. To my left, right here, is Bonolo Matjila. Bonolo is 15 years old, from South Africa, and she is a designer and lead of a prize-winning team in South Africa that’s using spirulina to address the challenge of malnutrition in her community, and finally Leroy Mwasaru, right here in the middle, is 17 years old, he’s from Kenya, and he’s the designer of a Human Waste Bioreactor system that combines human, animal and kitchen waste to turn it into gas for cooking and for other purposes, so today we’re going to be talking about how the invention generation is rethinking some of the grand challenges of development. So, I think I’m going to start off with you, David. I’ve heard you make the claim before that a major challenge to national development is the fact that so many countries, in sub-Saharan Africa particularly, but maybe this is applicable more globally, are dependent on external actors. Can you talk a little bit about that observation, to provide some context for us?
Sengeh: Thanks very much, Kate. I must actually start by noting that it’s not very often that you see on an international development panel young people who are actually doing international development, and not see some economist from the world banks, so I’d like to recognize and thank you. [APPLAUSE] And that applause is for Simon and our team, so thank you very much for doing that. So I’m at the Media Lab, every day when I walk into the Media Lab at MIT, people tell me to dream, people tell me to solve problems, people tell me to do the impossible, and that’s what I do with the prostheses that we design, but I also come from Sierra Leone, and when I go home, that’s what I see. I see sign boards and I see posters that tell me who’s supposed to solve my problem. If you actually look at the images there, something tells me that if you look at those every day, you have it in your brain that if you actually want to end poverty, you need to call ActionAid, or perhaps WorldVision, or somebody else. It’s never you, the individual. Now, even though there are a lot of the same issues in Sierra Leone as there is in Boston, we don’t have signboards like that in Cambridge or Boston at all. And so it is that the element of reduced self-efficacy that exists and permeates in society, that says if we want to solve problem, if we want to see prosperity or development, it has to come from an external source, and that’s completely wrong, because the people who line this room, the people who are the Media Lab, the people who are problem-solving today of a very young age are told that they can problem-solve, they should problem-solve and they have access to those tools and resources to do that. So, with my colleagues, many of our co-founders, young people, we start setting up an organization called Global Minimum that said enough with this rhetoric of, we can come, including myself—you know, I left Sierra Leone, and I go to Harvard, MIT, and I can do back to Sierra Leone to problem-solve, that’s not the motive. This is what we’ve done continuously, but that has certainly not worked and built the systems that we want to see. So, what we need to do is to create a critical mass of young people who can think about local problems, who can present solutions for those, and who learned this in Sierra Leone, South Africa and Kenya, where our programs challenge young people to form teams, develop prototypes and then come back to us. In return, what we do is we give them a bunch of feedback, mentors and a team, and the resource set that says here, go out and build the prototype, go out and learn through this process, go out and found companies, or do whatever you want to do, but that prosperity, then, was something that you as the young person was defining, for yourself, for your family and for the community. It was about the impact you were going to create, it was about the innovation and the products you were going to have, and it was about the skill, but beyond all of that it was about you. It was the experience that you were getting, the joy from creating, the idea from learning by doing. That’s what our program’s really capture.
Krontiris: Okay, so the idea was really, if what we care about in the long term is national development, we need to start today with young people, is what I’m hearing.
Sengeh: That’s correct.
Krontiris: So, we have today with us two young people who have been involved in these programs. I think, Bonolo, I’d like to start with you. So, tell me a little bit about the problem that you identified in your community, and talk to us about how you decided to solve that problem.
Matjila: I’m part of a group of students at the Cape Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technologies for Africa, and our project aims at increasing the state of health of many children that live in underprivileged rural communities using a microalgae superfood called spirulina. We started our project in April of this year, when a group of Israeli students visited our school with the purpose of teaching us about this algae called spirulina. Now, spirulina is a blue-green microalgae that contains 60 to 70 percent plant-based protein, and a large amount of the other minerals and nutrients that a child needs on a daily basis. The problem or challenge that we’re addressing is that of malnutrition and the problems it brings along with it, which are a slow mental and physical development that suffer from it, and so the idea is to incorporate the spirulina into their daily diets to relieve the stresses of malnutrition.
Krontiris: Okay, so tell us a little bit about how you did that, and we have some pictures here, I think, that show a little bit of what you’ve built. Talk to us about the solution that you tried out.
Matjila: So, we grow spirulina at school, and we grow it in two-liter bottles, as opposed to how people grow it commercially, with just running ponds. If you grow it in two-liter bottles, it yields a high density of spirulina, so we get more spirulina from the two liter bottles than people would growing it commercially, and so what we do is we visit neighboring schools and we teach them about the benefits of spirulina and how to grow it, and the idea is to create sort of a web to spread awareness about spirulina. So, I teach you, and you teach someone else, and the word will spread like that.
Krontiris: Okay, so your team was responsible both for a kind of new way of growing the spirulina, but also for training other young people about how they can grow it and use it themselves, is that correct?
Krontiris: Okay, excellent. Okay, great. So, then, maybe I’ll ask you, Leroy—you actually brought with you today a video that you’ve put together about your project. Would you just tell us quickly, what is this video going to show us?
Mwasaru: The video that will be shown before you addresses the problem that we were in, and also the solution that we produced. So, it actually engages the audience in the problem we were in, and the solution that we designed.
Krontiris: Okay, great. So if we could run the video, that would be great.
Krontiris: Excellent. And that looks like your team, there, at the end, is that correct?
Krontiris: Okay, so, we get a sense of it from the video, but tell us a bit in your own words again—how did you identify what the problem was that you wanted to solve, and tell us a little bit about what you did to solve it.
Mwasaru: The problem we had was that where I go to school in the Western part of Kenya, that is in Kisumu, the school decided to replace some of its old facilities, so it decided to put up a new dormitory that houses 720 students. So, after its completion, there was an uproar from the school, from the neighborhood, the school community, in that they complained, in that the waste from the dormitory will find its way to nearby springs of water that was the community’s only source of water. So, we took responsibility upon us to come up with a solution that could benefit the school community and the local community. What we decided to come up with was a human waste reactor that uses the waste from the 720 capacity dorm, plus the animal waste from the school farm, and also the waste from the kitchen treatment that is the […] from the staff and the students.
Krontiris: Okay, so the initial problem was kind of a result of a new dormitory, basically, that created a large amount of waste that was flowing into the local community’s spring. It sounds like what you did was find a way to use multiple sources of waste to actually turn that into energy for the school, is that correct? Okay, so we have up here two pictures of some of your work. Can you tell us a little bit about what we’re looking at, here? What is your intervention, what are the different components of it? What are we looking at?
Mwasaru: After our first camp, which was held in our school, we were funded by Global Minimum and we basically used two hundred-liter tanks, so that we inverted one into the other so that when gas forms, the upper part easily raises up due to gas creation. Yeah.
Krontiris: Okay, excellent. In a minute I’m going to open it up to the audience for questions, so, if you have something, please be ready to ask it. I guess, what I’ll ask you before we do that, David, is just to ask a little bit, how are these approaches maybe different than some of the traditional development approaches that you referenced earlier?
Sengeh: The fact that Leroy—I’m not sure if he mentioned that, but that his school actually is using gas that they are creating, currently, is fascinating. It’s one where the challenge that was in the community was solved by him and his team through the Innovate Kenya challenge, and they actually installed it within their community and other schools are also doing this, and that’s a wonderful thing, and similar with their work. But there are quite many examples, right, where there are young people, say—a very wonderful story I would like to share, which is about this young lady called Adama, who two years ago applied in the Innovate Kenya/Innovate Sierra Leone competitions to problem-solve with cholera, and what had happened was two members of the family had passed away, and we gave her these resources and capital and mentorship to go out to neighboring communities in our village to build wells and protect those wells and have water sanitation programs. Fast forward two years, and we have what the current situation is in Sierra Leone, and she independently reaches to us to say, “Look, I want to form a team, the same team, or expand those teams, to continue going to those other villages and problem-solving.” Now I’m in Boston, I’m not—I’m solving prosthetic problems, but the beauty is that Adama, who is in her community in Sierra Leone is doing what she needs to do to address the health care situation that exists, and that comes from this instilled self-confidence, it comes from the fact that she practiced this before, that she knows she can do it, she’s capable of doing this, so she has the leadership and the confidence enough, and that’s very different than how we know development has generally worked.
Krontiris: Okay, so building in her both the ability to sort of, from a technical and scientific perspective, think about what an appropriate intervention would be, but also the self-efficacy, sense of self-confidence that she can actually solve a problem, when it comes up. Okay, great. So, let’s see if there are any questions from the audience. Does anybody have any questions for this group? And if you do, I’d ask you to just identify yourself. Okay, so we have one over in this side of the room.
Surowiecki: James Surowiecki, from The New Yorker. Can you—I’m sorry, I forgot your name, the spirulina—
Surowiecki: Yeah, Bonolo, right. Can you talk a little bit about how you actually are getting people to eat the—they eat it, right? To eat the spirulina? Because that seems like an interesting part about—you know, you come up with an innovation, and then how do you get people to actually change their behavior to use this thing that’s good for them?
Matjila: That’s a good question. The idea behind it is not to replace your current food with spirulina, but to add it to your food, so at school we add our spirulina to smoothies, we make smoothies, and we add in the spirulina, and you can’t taste it, but you still get the extra nutrients that you get from eating spirulina. You could also add it to your bread, like, normal bread with peanut butter, and add spirulina to your bread. We’re also trying to make a salad dressing, now, to add spirulina to a salad dressing, yeah.
Krontiris: Okay, so you’re actually innovating a little bit in how you can consume it, and sharing those ideas with other people?
Krontiris: Okay. And let me ask you, just as a follow-up to that, how do you know you’re being successful in the work that you do?
Matjila: From the response that we get from the people. The people actually welcome our project, really, with open arms, and so we take that as great for this.
Krontiris: Okay, so people are receptive to a new way of getting better nutrition. Okay. Okay, great. Do we have other questions? I see one right here.
Audience: David, my question is probably for you. Like you, I live in the West. I live in London, and spend a lot of time in Africa just to go visit home, and I get that notion you talk about, which is the solution to problems seem to be NGOs that we’re expecting to do that. Where are you finding your lead in to change people’s perceptions? Is it from here, to get us to engage differently with people, and think differently about how we help, or is it actually on the ground, at the point of need? Where are the biggest challenges?
Sengeh: That’s an interesting question. I think you kind of hinted at the answer, which is that it’s multiple ways. So, let’s take the current situation with Ebola in West Africa. USAID and a couple of people have this series of $100,000 grants to develop PPEs. It’s wonderful. At the Media Lab and other places, there are applicants everywhere. There’s one in NYU, there’s one in everywhere but in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea—now, that is worrisome. Now, that is what needs to change. It’s wonderful, we—yesterday, David used the phrase called global, being—we’re so local, right, in our thinking, and we think whatever is close to us is what’s important. Whilst that is valuable, once we’re all in this global family, but we need to think about actions that we take and how it affects other people, or incapacitates other people, right? And I think we need to globally solve the problems that affect all of us, but that solution must be rooted in respect for the local communities and the capacity to train and build this confidence that people can problem-solve. So, back to the USAID thing. I think it’s wonderful that we are solving PPEs globally, from NYU and from MIT. That’s what we should be doing, but there has to be a concerted effort to ensure that the young people who are in Sierra Leone, who are in Kenya are also dreaming about what a new PPE is. And they should be on the ground, doing that, right? It requires more effort—so, that’s something that needs to change in the West, and actually a program that we instilled is called “Hack at Home,” because there are no schools in Sierra Leone, we’re forcing the kids on the medium that they have access to whether it’s radio, WhatsApp or Facebook, to develop their own solutions locally, and to think about what this is, because that’s what they have all the time, they need. And locally, you see that, and this medium that we have—so, in our challenge, this kid responds and sends a comment, and says, “But even the PPEs in the West that people use do not fight heat stress,” and you’re like, yes, I know, and that’s why you should change it. That’s why you on the ground should be able to think about it, so it’s, it’s double pronged. It comes from what we do, and how we interact, just means we work harder to ensure that we have problem-solving from here, but offer them room and space for others to problem-solve as well. in Sierra Leone, Kenya, South Africa, and everywhere else, the youth need to understand that, okay, okay, enough with this rhetoric of, somebody has to come and solve our problems. We also have that capacity.
Krontiris: And just to clarify, PPE is the personal protective equipment that the health workers are wearing in this context. One thing that I think is interesting that I’ve heard you talk about is that, in the context of doing this kind of problem-solving and learning, that it’s not so much about the outcome, and in fact we’ve seen news reports of people in West Africa who have made their own PPEs out of what they have around them, and in some cases they’ve actually been able to protect themselves from getting the disease. And, you know, maybe that’s not a CDC-qualified PPE, for example, but talk to us a little bit about this distinction between the process and the outcome, right? So, if you have young people working on solving problems, it would seem that it’s as much valuable for the process of learning as it is for the actual outcome for the intervention. Would you agree with that?
Sengeh: So I’ll probably have you both talk about, like, the process that—the transformation that has happened with you, since you joined this innovation programs, but one—before you speak, I suppose, there’s one story of this kid called Hassan, who came to our program in July, this thing called the July Project, where the kids can come to our space and tinker, right? So, there are multiple elements here. There’s a platform to innovate, there’s a space and tools where the kids can go, and also tinker, and learn by making and engaging that process that you were talking about. He came to learn electronics, because some other young kid had told him that he should come to our program, but then he signed up for a filming project, so he did both filming and electronics, and at the end of that, he ended up making a film about this community, this marginalized community in Freetown, which was absolutely wonderful. He had never been on a computer before, and fast-forward to now, he independently made this five-minute film that is so amazing that focuses on other young people. He places other young people who are recovering from Ebola and creates, writes the content, chooses to do it Creole, and that says to other young people that if somebody has survived, they should be integrated back into the community and nothing is wrong. That is just absolutely amazing, because for him, it’s a transformation that went from him showing up to this lab space to the skills that he had access to, to being able to have the audacity, right, to do it. It’s what we want, and perhaps you guys can talk about the processes and the transformation you’ve gone through.
Krontiris: So, Leroy, maybe we’ll start with you on that question. How has being involved in that sort of problem-solving process affected you?
Mwasaru: How the project has helped me personally is that I’ve been—I changed the community in that my project has acted as a disrupter in social conventions, in that we’re trying to break a cocoon that the community has put itself in, in that the community sees the human waste as waste, but to try and tell them that this, this is going to happen if you use this waste as waste, and this is what will happen if you see the waste as a resource. So it’s more than seeing the waste as resources, it’s better than seeing the waste as waste. And furthermore, it’s more aimed at addressing the problem that you had to the audience, and also to people out there, in that, yes, yes we are aware that the resources that we have are very fast depleting, and we have to make use of the few remaining resources that we have. For example, we have the human waste, that most of the community sees just waste. They don’t know what to associate with it, but we are trying to give them a perspective view of how they will benefit if they saw this waste as a resource.
Krontiris: So, a disruption of some of the social norms that people have about human waste, and—
Sengeh: Actually, you were just, which I didn’t know, you were sharing a story about how you convinced your father to start using one of these reactors. Can you share that story, perhaps?
Mwasaru: After making a second prototype from Global Minimum, we were able to, to purchase an underground biodigester that was piped directly from the kitchen. So, after feeding in waste from the animal farm that was cow dung, mostly, and food remains from the students and staff, after barely half a month, we started producing gas and I’d like to report it to the audience that the project is actually working, the second prototype is actually working and we’ve been able to use this gas for cooking in the kitchen. And after this, that’s where I go […] most of, in Kenya, people have two homes. That is their rural home, and the urban home. So I had this picture that, in the rural home, we have a cowshed that is a zero-grazing unit, that has around eight cows, and so I took it up on myself to convince my parents—mostly my father—to come up with a bioreactor that will use this waste from these cows, so that it can power up the homes in the rural area. Because we find that in a rural area, there’s nothing to save electricity, and also lighting’s a problem. People cooking, especially the mothers, get to have a respiratory attacks as a result of using firewood, so apparently the project is under construction, and it cost him around 100,000 Kenyan shillings. That’s around, roughly, $8,000 U.S.
Krontiris: Wow, wonderful, okay. We have time for one last question.
Islam: Pial Islam, pi Strategy Consulting, Bangladesh. My question is largely to David, about the Global Minimum piece. Two specific things—so, the energy converting human waste to energy, you know, it’s a phenomenal idea, but it has been tried many places around the world for the last 10, 20 years. So, how do you avoid, in your program, reinventing the wheel? I understand and appreciate the fact that it’s a personal learning growth dimension, and that’s applaudable, but how do you sort of leverage other practices. And the second part is about scale. How do you think of—what’s your view, from a Global Minimum perspective, what happens to these ideas and innovations 5, 10, 15 years down the road?
Sengeh: I have a mentor who says it’s okay to reinvent the wheel every time if you’re a young person learning, and perhaps that’s a good thing, because it’s the process. I absolutely agree with you that there’s been biowaste digesters everywhere, but as Leroy pointed, there’s no electrification in his community, even in my house in Bo, I still have power chords, so it doesn’t—kind of related from yesterday’s conversation. This technology exists, and this technology has been invented. That’s great, but it has nothing to do with the fact that it’s not been implemented in people’s homes and people’s communities, so there’s that translation element, which we want, and I think the reason why the translation hasn’t happened is because we expect some superhero, superman from somewhere to bring it and distribute it everywhere, instead of having innovation be a distributive process that involves young people, so that’s one thing that’s different.
With regards to scale—and I think this is something we’re also learning. This is where we would be open to work with people in the room, but I would like to share a couple stories. One is Tom Osborn. He came to us, he’s 18, he’s taking time off his freshman year in Kenya. He’s working at making charcoal from waste, from green waste. Sure, everybody has done this before, in different parts, but people still use, and cut down trees, but the fact that Tom is able to be an Echoing Green fellow and raise $100,000 as 18-year-old in Kenya and has just opened up a factory this week in his village and employs dozens of people is applaudable, and we should be able to have many of these. The fact that Bonolo’s team has done workshops, over weeks, in multiple schools, and that they are growing their own spirulina even though there’s protein bars and protein energy available everywhere is also laudable, and that in itself—even if it’s where we stopped, it’s a wonderful success, and I would love to see many of these young people be supported in their ways, I would love to see Leroy’s project be expanded and supported, and the resources exist, the technology exists, as you’ve mentioned, and we have the networks to do that, so it’s on all of us. And really, the big thing that we want to do, the big thing that we think is the opportunity here, is that kids, young people have to learn by making, and we have to create that opportunity in which they are tinkering, in which they are playing, in which they are exploring. And we have to build those spaces, offer them those tools, and the right opportunity for them to dream and go change the world.
Krontiris: Okay. Well, on that note, please join me in thanking such an incredible panel.
Kirkpatrick: That was great, David, thank you so much. Great to have you guys, thanks so much. Wonderful—you know, we really, we really love being able to show you some of the young people who are really thinking differently, and there are so many that are so intensely trying to look at the problems that the world faces, and think of what to do about it, and that we do find inspiring. It makes me think a little bit back to Patrick Collison and how, for Internet companies, he’s trying to empower these people all over the world. We need to think of ways to empower people who are doing these kinds of projects, with human waste and cement. It’s a bigger issue than just creating more Internet companies, and how we solve all that, from an infrastructure point of view, and a support point of view, is an interesting question.