Medical student wins $2,600 in agriculture innovation competition

By Pauline Luba
It is unusual for a medical student to show an interest in farming. Yet, that is what Samantha Ainembabazi, working towards the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery at the Uganda Christian University (UCU), did and more. 

She diversified her knowledge and skill into an innovation that she thinks could be a game changer for Uganda’s small-scale farmers and received a cash prize for the idea.  The 23-year-old, final-year student on the Kampala campus was given a sh10million (about $2,640) grant to help her refine her idea and actualize it. 

Ainembabazi’s innovation, Frezo Nano Technologies, which she submitted to the Ayute Africa Challenge 2023,   preserves fruits and vegetables by releasing a safe organic formulation extending shelf life by 30 days. 

Ayute Africa Challenge Uganda identifies agricultural and innovative tech ideas with the potential to address the challenges of smallholder farmers in Uganda, such as strengthening food security and improving production, income, resilience and access to finance.

And the support goes beyond awarding the agri-tech innovators. A team of expert advisors supports the winners to actualize their ideas to impact the lives of smallholder farmers. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than 70% of people in Uganda work in agriculture, and the country has more than three-and-a-half million family farms.

This year’s Ayute Africa Challenge, organized by Heifer International, a not-for-profit organization that supports local farmers in Uganda, featured 189 participants. The contestants were taken through an incubator program to gain deeper insight into how to scale up their businesses, ensure sustainability, and attain financial management skills. 

Ainembabazi believes the innovation that took her and her co-founder, Mugisha Arnold Gift, two years to develop will help reduce post-harvest losses among farmers. Frezo Nano Technologies inhibits the activity of phospholipase D, an enzyme responsible for the deterioration of membranes of fruits, giving them an extended shelf life.

Statistics indicate that poor practices in harvest and postharvest handling lead to a loss of 22% of the harvested produce and a further 17% loss of the output value.  

“We hope to reach every small-scale farmer, and eventually every household to help in the preservation of fruits and vegetables,” said Ainembabazi, whose innovation was the second runner-up in this year’s challenge. 

Simon Peter Okoci, who built an innovation that uses an automated temperature and light regulation system in brooders, was the overall winner. For this feat, he walked home with a cash prize of sh35million (about $9,230). The first runner-up, Willy Katumwa, who invented a fish feeding technology that automates feeding based on fish needs, received sh25 million (about $6,600).

The Heifer Uganda Country Director, William Matovu, said they aim to build a community of agri-tech innovators that can accelerate meaningful impact for smallholder farmers.

“Heifer Uganda believes that the future of Africa’s agriculture hinges on creating opportunities for young innovators to transform the agricultural landscape,” Matovu said at the awards gala held late October 2023.

Last year’s top winners of the challenge, according to Fred Bwino Kyakulaga, Uganda’s minister for agriculture, have already created jobs for 25 youths, with their innovations serving over 200 farmers in Uganda.