Saturday, 12 September 2020

Nigeria's Ikegwuonu Wins $1m in Dubai King’s Innovative Challenge

Nigerians still innovate, proffer solutions to the world’s daunting challenges and make great things happen, despite all the perceived negativities dogging their nation.

Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu has added to the growing list of innovative Nigerians daring to etch their names on the plaque of the world’s problem solvers, gaining fame and wealth with it.

With his solar-powered cold storage unit for rural farmers, Ikegwuonu’s ColdHubs is among four companies to win a $1 million (Dh3.67m) innovation prize set up by the ruler of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid.

The Global Maker Challenge was set up by Mohammed bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity.

Badr Al Olama, head of the organising committee for the Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit which hands out the prize each year, said the coronavirus pandemic has led to greater need for innovative solutions that can help the world’s most disadvantaged people.

The Global Maker Challenge invited businesses around the world to pitch ideas which could benefit the world’s poorest people.

According to the Mohammed bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity, finalists were selected from more than 3,400 entries, and among the winners is Ikegwuonu’s ColdHubs, a Nigerian company that provides solar-powered, walk-in cold storage for perishable foods produced by rural farmers in developing countries.

In areas where farmers’ markets are common, the lack of cold storage can and often leads to avoidable wastage.

“Food is precious,” said Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, the chief executive of ColdHubs. “The cold room can be installed in open markets and I and my team strongly believe with so much advancement in science and technology, there is no need for food to spoil.”

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Ikegwuonu’s company has so far installed 24 hubs and saved over 20,000 tons of food from spoilage. The firm employed 48 women to service the refrigerators.

He also won the 2020 Waislitz Global Citizen Disruptor Award and was given a cash prize of $50,000.

The other three winners include the Simbi Foundation, a developer of solar-powered learning centres that gives access to digital education; Plastics for Change, an ethical sourcing platform; and Poket, a crowd-sourced registry of offline merchants that can map rural supply chains.

The prize was split into different challenges – solving challenges refugees face when accessing services and how to ensure growing populations can access healthy and sustainable food.

The four winning companies, along with eight runners-up, will now receive financial prizes, mentorship and access to global organisations worth up to $1 million.

Judges included members of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s ‘Solve initiative’ – a programme that seeks solutions from tech entrepreneurs to address the world’s most pressing problems – alongside 47 other experts.

“The whole world has been shaken by the coronavirus pandemic but the strength of this year’s cohort has given us hope for the future,” said Badr Al Olama. “Our maker community put forward localised solutions for global problems, and we can ensure that these inspiring innovations reach those who need it most.

“At the Mohammed bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity, we believe that by demonstrating cohesiveness and having a shared destiny, we can strive towards a brighter future for all.”

The runners-up include: ID2020 – a digital platform that gives displaced people greater ownership of their own healthcare records, educational certificates and professional credentials; Stixfresh – a company that developed stickers that create a protective layer around fresh food to slow down spoiling, providing economic benefit for small farmers without climate-controlled warehouses.

Others include Agricycle Global, which developed zero-electricity food dryer technology that connects rural farmers to international markets; AlgiKnit provides a sustainable fibre for the fashion industry that is biodegradable, comfortable and low-cost; Nilus developed a social enterprise platform that creates a cheap and healthy food digital marketplace for low-income people.

Fantine created a blockchain-enabled marketplace that allows coffee farmers to deal directly with roasters and buyers; Aquacycl built a fuel cell capable of generating electricity from wastewater, and Aiyin runs virtual reality learning spaces for facilities without the physical and monetary capacity to build real ones.

Ikegwuonu holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Imo State University and a Master’s degree in Cooperation and Development from the University of Pavia in Italy, where he wrote his final paper about the link between poverty reduction and sustainable environmental management.

Named a ‘Young Leader’ by the BMW Foundation in 2011, Ikegwuonu is committed to helping farmers in southeastern Nigeria improve their livelihoods while implementing agricultural practices that, for example, reduce soil degradation and conserve wood resources. He does this through the SmallHolders Foundation he directs and with daily radio broadcasts to 250,000 subsistence farmers.

The radio programmes in his local Igbo language cover everything from crop production techniques and livestock density management to farm safety and rain water harvesting.

Though his work educating farmers and spreading practical information about sustainable farming techniques, Mr Ikegwuonu says he has helped farmers improve their household income from one dollar a day to 1.50 dollars per day.

By introducing biodiversity conservation methods, he has also contributed to increased agricultural production of various crops, including maize, cassava and yam.

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