South Africa is suffering the worst drought in the country’s recorded history. The record breaking temperatures have left the majority of the country’s provinces in a state of disaster, and millions of households are facing severe water shortages.
The agricultural union Agri SA has responded with a request for $1 billion in government subsidies to help farmers through the crisis, but a surprising solution proposed by a high-school student is taking the spotlight.
Kiara Nirghin, a sixteen-year-old student from Johannesburg, recently won the Google Science Fair’s Community Impact Award for the Middle East and Africa. Many are considering her project, “No More Thirsty Crops” as a viable solution to South Africa’s enduring drought. According to Nirghin, her top priority was tackling her country’s most urgent national crisis:
“I wanted to minimize the effect that drought has on the community and the main thing it affects is the crops. That was the springboard for the idea.”
Nirghin’s project combined two readily available items—orange peel and avocado skins, to create a super absorbent polymer (SAP) that can store reserves of water hundreds of times its own weight and allow farmers to cheaply maintain their crops. The sustainability of her polymer is notable: it uses recycled and biodegradable waste products to conserve water.
Careful research of SAPs and a “trial and error” approach led the inventor to orange peels and avocado as raw materials.
“I started researching what an SAP was, and what they all had in common was a chain molecule polysaccharide,” Nirghin recalls. “I found that orange peel has 64% polysaccharide and also the gelling agent pectin, so I saw it as a good (option). I used avocado skin due to the oil.”
The teenager, whose hero is the Indian agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan, believes her project has what it takes to address the real world problems she set out to conquer, and hopes it will be tested in the field.
“If the idea was commercialized and applied to real farms and real crops I definitely think the impact that drought has on crops would be reduced,” she says.
According to researchers in the field, her idea could work.
“Kiara found an ideal material that won’t hurt the budget in simple orange peel, and through her research, she created a way to turn it into soil-ready water storage with help from the avocado,” said Andrea Cohan, program leader of the Google Science Fair.
According to the Google Science Fair website, “the Community Impact Awards honor five projects that make a practical difference in his or her community by addressing an environmental, health, or resources challenge.” Winners are awarded $1,000 in educational scholarship and a year-long mentorship from a Google Science Fair partner organization.