East Africans shine at engineering competition

Thursday December 05 2019

Students at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology display how they use water hyacinth to make briquettes. One of the shortlisted Kenyans for the continental award used hyacinth to make animal feed. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


East Africans bagged eight out of the 16 slots in this year’s shortlist for the prestigious Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation.

The Prize is run by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), with objective of recognising African innovators. Among the shortlisted are the East African inventions — a low-cost digital microscope to speed up cervical cancer diagnosis, a chemical process that turns crop waste into fertilisers and two innovations using the invasive water hyacinth plants to manufacture animal feed and cooking fuel.

The final shortlist has five Kenyan innovators and three Ugandans. The rest were from West and South African countries with Ghana taking four slots, Nigeria (two), South Africa and Malawi — a first time participant — each taking one. Six of the 16 finalists are female.

A Kenyan biotechnologist, Jack Oyugi is on the coveted list for using the invasive water hyacinth in Lake Victoria to formulate a protein-rich animal feed called Aquaprotein.

He started the journey while working at a dairy farm as a farm manager, during which he encountered the high animal feed costs and low milk production first-hand.

Mr Oyugi began harvesting and testing water hyacinth after he saw animals eating parts of the invasive plant on the shores of Lake Victoria. Water hyacinth only has 14 per cent protein, but Mr Oyugi’s patented fermentation process uses a local fungus to increase the protein levels to 50 per cent.


Categorised as Africa’s biggest prize dedicated to engineering innovation, RAEng awards crucial support to ambitious African innovators developing solutions to local challenges. This year’s shortlist are innovations disrupting essential industries such as energy and agriculture.

They range from a containerised system that uses burning biomass to preserve grains and other crops, a quick and accurate apparatus to measure humidity in grains, a set of apps that help prevent food waste, a heat storage system that allows rural schools to cook food quickly without firewood, facial recognition software to prevent financial fraud and an antibacterial soap that makes use of discarded crop waste.

Others are a smart library on wheels, a low-cost digital microscope to speed up cervical cancer diagnosis, bamboo bicycles made from recycled parts, and two innovations made from invasive water hyacinth plants — an animal feed and a cooking fuel.

This year also features a number of innovations to improve energy access, such as a solar grid management system that helps users manage energy use remotely and an off-grid power and refrigeration system.

Recycling of waste water has been given priority as the list has a water filtration process that uses bones and coconut shells to provide safe drinking water without expensive equipment.

The system also has a set of digital and hardware tools to control the collection, sale and shredding of recyclable plastics.

Launched by the RAEng in 2014, supported by The Shell Centenary Scholarship Fund and the UK Government's Global Challenges Research Fund, the annual Africa Prize awards supports innovators who are transforming their local communities. The prize identifies engineering entrepreneurs with significant potential, endorse those who, with the support of the prize, have achieved greater commercial success and social impact.

A unique package of support will be provided to the shortlisted innovators over the next eight months to help them accelerate their businesses. The benefits of selection include comprehensive and tailored business training, mentoring, funding and access to academy’s network of engineers and business experts in the UK and across Africa.

“For six years, we have been humbled to work with African entrepreneurs who use engineering to shift how we think about problems, developing disruptive technologies for everything from energy and agriculture to housing, transport and finance,” said Rebecca Enonchong, Africa Prize judge and Cameroonian entrepreneur.

“These are the local entrepreneurs who are transforming Africa, and we are once again honoured to guide and learn from the brightest minds chosen for the Africa Prize shortlist,” she added.

Following an eight-month period of tailored training and mentoring, which culminates in a display of how promising each solution is, four finalists will be selected and invited to pitch their improved innovation and business plan to the judges and a live audience.

The winner will receive $28,000 while three runners up will each receive $11,000.

Alumni of the prize are projected to impact over three million lives in the next five years. The programme will create over 1,500 jobs and raise more than $14 million in grants and equity.

Uganda’s David Tusubira got shortlisted for what he calls the Remot — a hardware and software system that monitors and manages the performance.

Manufactured on site at their offices in Kampala, the hardware device is nicknamed “Davix” after the co-founder. Mr Tusubira met his colleagues at Makerere University. They then started a business training and reselling electronics to engineering students, but the team repeatedly came across challenges in solar energy — complex systems, mismanagement and corruption.

Four years on, Remot runs in nearly 500 schools, 11 solar maize mills, and solar water pumps on office blocks in the DRC, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, with samples in use in Ethiopia.

The team helps solar companies, energy consultants and energy donors — common in East Africa — run pay-as-you-go systems. These help justify investment, by showing usage patterns, and also help plan future installations by evaluating older ones.

“Solar installations aren’t simple — you can’t just install them, and forget about them,” said Mr Tusubira.

“They require maintenance and monitoring, which overwhelms most people. But if we can make these systems more reliable and manageable, I believe we can solve off-grid energy in Africa,” added Mr Tusubira.