The 2014 GIST Tech-I finalists and mentors | AAAS
MARRAKECH, Morocco — Every year, 6,300 Ugandan women die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth, according to Edmund Ainebyona, a young innovator participating in the GIST Tech-I international entrepreneurship competition. Twenty-five out of every 1,000 babies delivered in Uganda are stillborn, he went on to explain in an interview, and a simple, low-cost mobile application he is developing can help prevent such deaths. It was only much later, and in response to a direct question about his family background, that the 24-year-old Ugandan mentioned that his own mother died when he was born.
Ainebyona's story provided just one poignant example of young innovators using science and technology to meet important needs in developing countries. Many of Ainebyona's fellow finalists at the GIST Tech-I competition — a program started by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by AAAS — brought possible solutions to problems in their communities based on intimate knowledge of those problems. That knowledge, along with the entrepreneurs' ingenuity and drive, plus the training and mentorship they received throughout the competition, make it possible they will succeed in improving people's lives while also aiding in the development of their home regions.
"They know their markets and the need for their innovations better than we from the West," said GIST Tech-I mentor Klein Ileleji, an associate professor, extension engineer in agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University and a fellow at the Purdue Faculty Entrepreneurship Leadership Academy.
2014 GIST Tech-I Winners
Offering solutions, and opportunities for development, to their communities, this year’s competitors took home at total of $70,000 in prizes, including personal tablets preloaded with textbooks, advice and apps about entrepreneurship. See the full list of winners.
First ($15,000) - David Gluckman, South Africa, fire detection for slum-dwellers
Second ($7,500) - Mawano Kambeu, Zambia, bus ticket reservation system
Third ($5,000) - Edmund Ainebyona, Uganda, app for midwives
First ($15,000) - Mixon Faluweki, Malawi, bicycle-powered phone charger
Second ($7,500) - Cynthia Ndubuisi, Nigeria, cassava peel livestock feed
Third ($5,000) - Alim Khamitov, Kazakhstan, app to prevent burglaries
"Overall, the creativity of the GIST Tech-I finalists gives us hope that there is an alternative pathway to helping developing countries besides aid," said Ileleji, who was born and raised in Nigeria. "Could we imagine if some of these finalists go on to build multimillion dollar companies that generate wealth in their countries and employ thousands of people?"
This year's Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Tech-I Competition, held 18 to 21 November, in Marrakech, Morocco, brought together 30 young entrepreneurs from 23 developing countries. Ilelelji and 17 other mentors-recruited by AAAS from the front lines of industry, research, governmental and nongovernmental funding agencies, and science and technology advancement organizations-provided a training ground and ongoing support network for the young innovators. In four days of training and competition orchestrated by Jennifer Roderick and Cristine Geers of the AAAS International Office, this year's 30 finalists worked through exercises designed to help them define and validate their products, target their markets, and "pitch" their business propositions to investors.
Begun in 2011, the GIST competition is one of the initiatives begun by the U.S. Department of State to support innovation in the developing world at the direction of President Barack Obama. Since its inception, participants, who apply for the program and are invited to be finalists through an extremely competitive multi-step selection process, have generated $80 million in revenue by commercializing their innovations, according to U.S. State Department figures.
"Scientists and engineers have long been seen as speaking a universal language," said AAAS Chief International Officer Vaughan Turekian, "but globally, more and more entrepreneurs are tapping into science and technology to promote innovation and economic growth."
A First-Hand Knowledge of Communities' Needs
The idea Ainebyona brought to GIST combines a traditional technology with a modern one, employing a device called a pinard horn, which has been used by Ugandan midwives for more than a hundred years. Traditionally, the horn end of the cone-shaped pinard horn is placed on a pregnant woman's abdomen, and the midwife listens for the fetal heartbeat at the other end of the device. "We like to use the existing tools and see what we can do with them. People like to use what they are familiar with," Ainebyona said, adding that the name of his product is WinSenga, "senga" being the traditional name in Uganda for a pregnant woman's helper during birth.
Edmund Ainebyona (right) with Wael Al-Delaimy, Chief of the Division of Global Health, University of California, San Diego | AAAS
One problem associated with the pinard horn is that midwives, especially inexperienced ones, sometimes struggle to distinguish the heartbeat of the mother from that of the fetus. The mobile app developed by Ainebyona and colleagues Aaron Tushabe and Joshua Okello allows a midwife even in a remote area to connect a smart phone to the pinard horn and, with one tap, receive recommendations for how to proceed with the pregnancy or birth. "One simple tap," said Ainebyona, "and that's it. It helps them carry out diagnostics faster and more accurately."
Like Ainebyona, Cynthia Ndubuisi came to GIST Tech-I with a solution to a problem she has experienced close up. The 23-year-old Nigerian said her aunt, who is a farmer, works endlessly processing the cassava she grows. Despite her aunt's long hours, however, she hardly makes a profit. "With all the hard work she puts in," Ndubuisi said, "it's very little income."
Ndubuisi is no stranger to hard work. After her father lost his job because the bank he worked at closed, Ndubuisi and her mother began freezing water in plastic bags so they could sell the ice. Between the ages of 8 and 14, Ndubuisi delivered the ice to customers. "I carried the blocks of ice on my head," she said, "to distribute to those people."
Cynthia Ndubuisi | AAAS
Now a college graduate with a degree in textile science and polymer technology, Ndubuisi has turned back to her aunt's plight, investigating using the waste from her farm, the cassava peels, in feed for livestock. Last March, Ndubuisi received the results of a study done on the cassava feed: It is suitable for goats and chickens, and the weight gain in animals that ate it was tripled over corn-based feeds, she said. The feed is about half as expensive as corn-based feed, and it can provide another stream of revenue for cassava farmers like Ndubuisi's aunt, who would otherwise have to burn the peels.
Ndubuisi is waiting for the feed to be approved by the Nigerian government, which she said could happen in two or three months. In the meantime, she said the GIST Tech-I competition, was extremely effective in helping her to refine her business plan.
"One thing I really enjoyed was when we had to draft the persona of our customer," said Ndubuisi, referring to a part of the GIST training that focused on defining the customer. "That really helped, because in just doing that, it simplified things so that I can speak to any investor about my business. It made me really think about what my customer wants, and how to get to them."
Another example of an innovation tailor-made to its community is Mixon Faluweki's bicycle-powered cell phone charger. In Faluweki's native Malawi, 40% of the population has cell phones. Only 7%, however, have electricity at home, and the bicycle, including the bicycle taxi, is the main form of transportation. Besides being a good example of homegrown innovation, however, Faluweki's story also dramatically demonstrates some of the hurdles young entrepreneurs face in developing countries.
For Some, a Very Long Road to Marrakech
Faluweki was born in a village in the Chikwawa District so remote that it took him two hours to walk to his primary school. At age 13, he was selected to attend another school in a nearby city, and he has since gone on to the University of Malawi in Momba, where he studies physics and math. It was in Momba, in the beginning of 2014, that he developed his bike-powered charger, spending $140 of his own money to make five prototypes. "I was limited," Faluweki said, "because I am a student."
Mixon Faluweki (left) with Yvette Ramos, Managing Director of Swiss Engineering Geneve, and Michael Cheetham, AAAS Director of International Science & Technology Partnerships | AAAS
Hearing about the GIST Tech-I competition from a professor at school, Faluweki applied and, after proceeding through the levels of the competition, was chosen to attend the finals in Morocco. The 24-year-old had never left his country before or been on a plane. His visa, it was decided, would await him at the airport in Marrakech, and he was sent letters of invitation to travel with, confirming that the visa was in order.
Unfortunately, on the way to Morocco, he was taken off the plane in Nairobi, Kenya, and kept there for 24 hours. "I didn't even sleep," he said, "because there were some guys who were intimidating some Indians, and I thought they would come to me." Throughout the time he was in Nairobi, he was unable to retrieve his suitcase. Later, when he went to work on his GIST presentation in his hotel room in Morocco, he realized that the laptop he had borrowed for the trip had been stolen.
Remarkably, he managed to view his difficulties getting to Morocco and the loss of the laptop as less important than the opportunities offered at the competition. "I'm even forgetting all that happened during my getting here, because of my experience since I arrived. [The finalists] are like brothers, like one family," Faluweki said. "We are sharing ideas, and even when I go back to Malawi, there will still be linkages."
Logistical hurdles to succeeding as an entrepreneur in the developing world are often coupled with cultural ones. Two innovators invited to the competition in Morocco never even got as far as the airport, competition organizers said. Because the two entrepreneurs are women, among seven females who became finalists, they were prevented from leaving their countries. A third female finalist says she didn't tell her family she was going to Morocco until it was too late for them to stop her.
Cultural barriers to entrepreneurship that are perhaps more subtle, such as aversion to risk and fear of failure, also exist. Tunisian finalist Wassim Zoghlami, who is developing an app that allows consumers to check for allergens in health and beauty products, says there is very little culture of entrepreneurship in his country.
Wassim Zoghlami and other GIST Tech-I finalists | AAAS
"The young are not daring. They say the system is flawed, they underestimate their abilities, they think they are not good enough," he said. "They need people who will bring inspiration to them."
At least some of that inspiration can come from the GIST Tech-I competitors themselves. Zoghlami said he is accepting invitations to serve as a mentor and role model to other young people, and many of the other finalists, who have gotten media attention for their innovations in their own countries, are being asked to make appearances at public events. Some of the finalists have already started coaching other young people, even holding "boot camps" at which an even newer generation of entrepreneurs can learn programming languages, for instance, for their own innovations.
"We need to be ambassadors of the program," said Carlos Cortes Manica, a Mexican finalist who is developing an energy-saving air-conditioning system that operates with solar power and silica gel, "and teach other entrepreneurs to not be afraid of failure. We need to tell them to have commitment, persistence and passion to continue."