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Who ever thought you could fight the effects of drought just by mixing fruits together?

A 16-year-old from Johannesburg, that's who!

Photo by Andrew Weeks, used with permission.


Science whiz Kiara Nirghin, a grade 11 student at St. Martin's School in Johannesburg, came up with an idea that could make a big difference in drought-stricken regions.

"Currently, South Africa is experiencing one of the worst droughts in its history," said Nirghin. "I started looking at it, and not only is it affecting my community, it's a worldwide problem. From there, I started looking at, 'OK. What could I do to lessen the impact that the drought had on South Africa's food supply?' — which is one of the main things that it is affecting."

With temperatures rising to blistering levels and South Africa declaring a state of disaster due to drought in eight provinces, Nirghin's game-changing invention couldn't have come at a better time.

Using orange peels and avocado skins, Nirghin created her ownsuperabsorbent polymer (SAP) to nourish crops in desperate need of water.

An SAP is a powder-like material that can take in large amounts of liquid without taking up a lot of space. In fact, it's known to absorb hundreds of times its own weight. SAPs are planted alongside crops to create mini reservoirs of water that keep soil moist longer and allow growing plants to survive with less rainfall or water.

A helpful slide from Nirghin's award-winning submission. Image via Google Science Fair.

According to Science Direct, the problem with many SAPs is they're made from some pretty harsh chemicals that can harm people as well as the environment. So Nirghin set out to create a more natural, biodegradable alternative.

"I started looking at what characterized a superabsorbent polymer and how I could emulate that characterization," she said. "And one of those things were the polysaccharide found in orange peels."

Nirghin breaks down her process in a video for the Google Science Fair. First, she boiled the orange peels to extract pectin (more typically used as a gelling agent in jams and jellies). She then combined the pectin with sun-dried orange peels, baked the mixture, crushed it into a powder, and added more sun-dried orange peels and avocado skins.

The project, dubbed "No More Thirsty Crops," earned Nirghin the grand prize at this year's Google Science Fair.

Not only is Nirghin's SAP biodegradable, it's also affordable — and creating it produces less pollution than regular SAPs.

"[Commercial SAPs are] not biodegradable and they’re extremely costly," said Nirghin. "And one of the important aspects that’s often overlooked is that the making of the superabsorbent polymers pollutes the environment. … The production is not only timely, it’s very difficult to reproduce in poorer areas … So I looked at basically minimizing all those negative aspects."

In Nirghin's research paper, she estimates her SAP would cost about $30 to $60 per metric ton to mass produce — whereas current commercial SAPs can go for a staggering $2,000 to $3,000 per metric ton. Even better? Nirghin found her method to be more effective at retaining water than commercial SAPs.

Nirghin now has her sights set on getting her SAP in as many hands as possible and affecting more positive change around the world.

"I would love for it to go into actual farms out there," Nirghin said. "I want it to actually be supplied to farmers all over the world that are currently experiencing a drought. I don’t want to keep it as an idea that I just came up with … I would really like for it to go out and help people out there."

On top of her Google Science Fair victory, Nirghin's invention also garnered her a spot on Time's 30 Most Influential Teens of 2016 — an honor that could help her spread even more good. For starters, she's already looking to expand her SAP to test water filtration as well as oil removal from water.

Nirghin also has an inspiring message for anyone looking to follow in her footsteps.

Nirghin (third from left) and her fellow finalists. Photo by the Nirghin family, used with permission.

She said, "One of the main things is looking at what your community is facing because it's great coming up with an idea, but unless it impacts your community and makes it better — like the Google Science Fair says, 'What will you make better?' — that should be one of the main driving forces to lessen the impact of the problems of your community."

From there, just think of that idea as a freshly planted crop. With a little nourishment and attention, it can grow into something even stronger and more essential than you ever imagined.

The plight of farmers has never been more real.

Erosion caused by drought. The increased scarcity of water ... caused by drought. Lack of resources, from equipment to information. Ever-increasing energy costs. Increasingly unpredictable weather. The list goes on and on.


Image via iStock.

According to Tech Times, drought conditions and heat waves caused by an ever-warming planet have led to a 10% drop in worldwide cereal harvests in the past 50 years alone and could result in as much as a 30% loss in total global crop production by the year 2080.

With fewer resources, financial support, and social safety nets to lean on, the harsh reality is that underdeveloped countries will face the greatest setbacks as the effects of climate change continue to increase.

"People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change," reads a 2014 report by the UN's climate panel.

Image via CIAT/Flickr.

In countries with agriculturally based labor forces like Nigeria, these hardships often force farmers to outsource their labor in order to harvest what few crops they have.

Those who can't afford to pay for seasonal labor, however, are left with little choice but to underuse their land and lose out on the potential income that comes with it.

Image via South African Tourism/Flickr.

While something as simple as a tractor could be a huge help to addressing their financial woes, it's also something that many farmers can't afford because of said financial woes. Not to mention that most commercial banks in Nigeria charge a 30% interest rate and require loan repayment within a year.

This is exactly the kind of fiscal dilemma that apps like Hello Tractor are hoping to solve.

The brainchild of founder/CEO Jehiel Oliver, Hello Tractor is a revolutionary mobile app that connects tractor owners with nearby farmers in marginalized areas of sub-Saharan Africa for the purposes of renting out their equipment and skills.

With a simple SMS text message, a farmer in need can send a message requesting tractor services to the app, which will then connect to the nearest Smart Tractor (a tractor embedded with Oliver's low-cost GPS/telematics system) using local and cloud-based data to connect them.

Image via iStock.

Hello Tractor's system provides a quicker and cheaper alternative to hiring manual laborers and is off to a promising start.

According to TakePart, "Since Hello Tractor launched in the summer of 2014, farmers who participated in the beta period saw their yields increase by 200 percent using a machine that’s 40 times faster than manual labor."

Can't afford to rent a tractor? Hello Tractor's got your back on that, too!

In parts of the developing world with few banks and fewer credit unions, getting access to enough capital to buy a bag of fertilizer presents a difficult challenge in and of itself, let alone renting a tractor.

"The farmers operate on small plot sizes, which means they don't make enough money to invest in a big piece of machinery," Oliver told Fast Company/Co-Exist. "There also aren't bank loans for farmers, so it's pretty difficult to finance a tractor."

While one of Oliver's Smart Tractors can be rented out for just $75 per hectare (roughly 2.5 acres) farmed, Hello Tractor also takes things a step further by connecting farmers to microfinancing companies that can offer lower interest rates as compared with the nationally backed banks.

Hello Tractor is also opening huge doors for female farmers in Africa.

Image via iStock.

A report published by the World Bank last year found that farm plots harvested by women yielded 13% to 30% less crops per hectare than those produced by men. The biggest reason for this disparity lies not in the skill level of female farmers but the "more than unequal access to inputs [and] unequal returns to the inputs they have."

Hello Tractor, on the other hand, is using the anonymity of its users to narrow the culturally fueled wage gap between men and women.

"Uber has made it easier for a black man in New York to hail a cab. You request something through the cloud with no face, and that request is paired with the closest car. It sort of circumvents racism," Oliver told TakePart.

"The same is true of Hello Tractor: When they arrive with that tractor, you’re going to still want that service. This was our way of circumventing the negative gender stereotypes that exist in Nigeria — and they’re really entrenched here."

Image via iStock.

An app helping to end both poverty *and* inequality in the parts of the world that need it the most? Talk about a game-changer.