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Chemist Behind Novel Pesticide Wins International Startup Contest

Donatus Njoroge, a Kenyan-born industrial chemist, earned first place at the 2019 GIST Tech-I Competition in Manama, Bahrain. | Neil Orman/AAAS

It was while working as a researcher at Mount Kenya University that Donatus Njoroge, an industrial chemist, first explored the idea of developing a safe, easy-to-use product to help Kenyan farmers protect their stocks of corn and other grains from the weevils that so often ravage them.

Njoroge’s vision has since evolved into a promising startup, and last month, the 32-year-old entrepreneur earned first place at the GIST Technology Idea Competition in Manama, Bahrain. Hosted by the U.S. Department of State’s Global Innovation through Science and Technology initiative since 2011 and implemented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science since 2014, the Tech-I pitch competition gives young science and technology innovators from emerging economies the chance to vie for recognition on a global stage.

The GIST Tech-I award is the latest addition to Njoroge’s recent string of honors. In 2017, Njoroge took second place in the USAID-funded East Africa Postharvest Technologies Competition in his native Nairobi. The $10,000 in seed funding that the victory provided allowed him to refine his product, creating an organic, slow-release pesticide capsule that his startup, Vinis Kenya Limited, produces today.

By emitting pest-killing fumes, each of Vinis Kenya’s canisters protects a 90-kilogram (198-pound) bag of corn for six months. In a country that produces 40 million bags of corn per year but has a demand of 52 million, this boon to grain storage is badly needed. In 2018, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta named improving food security a pillar of his administration’s Big Four Action Plan.

The new technology also seeks to address a public health concern. Njoroge lost a family member to an illness that he suspects was linked to pesticide exposure when his uncle, who had spent his career spraying crops for an agricultural company, died at a young age.

The active compounds in Vinis Kenya’s patent-pending capsules, however, come from native African plants and are harmless to humans, Njoroge says. Early this year, his technology won him the Kenyan government’s National Innovation Award.

“A good part of Kenyans and East Africans depend on maize, so there is no room for post-harvest losses,” Njoroge says. “Having the product win in Kenya and East Africa tells you that farmers have been waiting for a solution. The market is huge. The market is ready.”

Donatus Njoroge poses with his award at the GIST Tech-I pitch competition last month. | Thomas Harmon/Global Entrepreneurship Network

This year, AAAS received pitch videos from more than 500 GIST Tech-I applicants in 82 countries. A panel of science and technology experts whittled the pool down to 80 semifinalists, and the public cast 120,000 votes to decide who would advance. The 24 finalists pitched their ventures to attendees at the 2019 Global Entrepreneurship Congress, held April 15-18 at the Bahrain International Exhibition & Convention Center.

Of a total prize pot that included $36,000 in startup capital and more than $200,000 in Amazon Web Services credits, Njoroge took home $15,000 in cash and $50,000 in AWS credits. The monetary award and, perhaps more importantly, the exposure he received and connections he made at GIST Tech-I will help him scale his business in Kenya and across Africa.

The second- and third-place winners in the startup category were Syed Abrar Ahmed, a Pakistani whose company strives to streamline the sharing of digital health data, and Varinder Singh, who is implementing technology for reusing crop waste in his native India. In addition to seed funding, each winner is receiving three months of mentoring following the finals.

“I am always amazed at the ingenuity and fortitude of the GIST Tech-I finalists,” says Brandon van Hoff, a program associate in the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program who oversees the competition. “This year was no different. These entrepreneurs are using science and technology to solve real-world problems they have come across in their communities.”

Queenny Alvarado, 29, an Ecuadorian environmental engineer, earned the competition’s Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur award for her carbon dioxide-sequestering technology. Alvarado’s startup, Anuka — meaning “algae” in her native Kichwa — builds biofilters that use microalgae to absorb contaminated air, photosynthesize and release oxygen.

Queenny Alvarado won GIST Tech-I's Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur award. | Brandon Van Hoff/AAAS

This month, in the parking lot of the biggest shopping mall in Quito, Anuka will install its public filter, a two-meter (six-and-a-half-foot) tall, cylindrical tower. Alvarado believes her success at GIST Tech-I will propel her company toward more installation opportunities and an eventual expansion into wastewater treatment.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to meet other people that really believe in their passions to build a better world,” she says. “After the Congress, I got a lot of inspiration, because sometimes we feel alone, like you are fighting climate change and all the world doesn’t care. But if you see someone doing something in local spaces with global impact, you continue believing in your passion.”