Teenagers from Swaziland snag $50,000 prize for hydroponic system

Written by Rose Eveleth, Contributing Editor on

How many teenagers have $50,000 just laying around? Well, now these two students from Swaziland do (or maybe $25,000 each, which is still a lot of money). It's well deserved though, the two students won the money in Scientific American's first ever Science in Action contest at the Google Science Fair for developing a hydroponics system to help local farmers.

Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Mahlalela - both 14 years old - developed a looked into growing lots and lots of crops and veggies with limited space and no soil. Their project is summarized in this video below:

They call their system a Unique Simplified Hydroponics Method (USHM) - like true scientists they're starting with the acronyms early. It uses compost from the local area as soil held in waste cartons, and waste nutrients from chicken manure as fertilizer. To test their system compared with a conventional subsistence farm, they grew baby marrows and lettuce.

The results favored their USHM system by a lot. There was a 152 percent increase in the population of plants per unit of land, and that the average growth rate increased 350 percent.

Shongwe and Mahlelela know first hand about crop needs. About 80 percent of the vegetables consumed in their home country aren't grown there - they're imported from South Africa. Over half the population relies on help to get enough food. On their website they explain that Mahlalela's family lives in a rural region of Swaziland. "Like most Swazi subsistence farmers, his family does not produce enough yields each year for feeding themselves until the next harvest," they write.

Scientific American's Budding Scientist blog spoke with the two winners (they spoke with them before they knew they won the award). Shongwe explained why they wanted to develop something for their local community:

I believe that Swaziland neither needs the tons of food aid coming from western and eastern countries, nor complex strategies which the country cannot afford to solve low food productivity. Educating subsistence farmers is the key, and our experimental project has proven to be one of the best approaches. If we can empower Swazi subsistence farmers with such knowledge of simplified hydroponics, producing organic crops, one challenge, i.e. food shortage in the country, could be significantly reduced. Apart from each family having enough food, surplus crops could be sold to local markets reducing the high food price which are mainly a result of transportation cost of vegetables from South Africa.

There are all sorts of difficulties to growing food in Africa. Who knows whether the USHM will be able to solve those problems. But for a kids science fair project, Shongwe and Mahlelela certainly impressed the Scientific American judges. And now the two have a chance to travel to Google's headquarters in California, and be a part of a year long mentorship program.

Via: Scientific American

Image: Ryan Somma / Wikimedia Commons

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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