Sakhiwe Shongwe (left center, in green sweater), Bonkhe Mahlalela (right center, in green sweater) and local farmers in Swaziland. Credit: Sahkiwe Shongwe

We judges and others who work on the Google Science Fair believe that kids have the power to change the world. The $50,000 Scientific American Science in Action Award recognizes a particular type of change–one that focuses on making a practical difference by addressing an environmental, health or resources challenge. (For more on the award and the prize, see the Scientific American Science in Action page.) We caught up with Sakhiwe Shongwe, who with Bonkhe Mahlalela, won in 2012 when they were 14, to find out what he was doing now.

By the way, entries are open until May 12 for students ages 13-18. Good luck!

In 2012, you and Bonkhe Mahlalela won the first Scientific American Science in Action award, as part of the second annual Google Science Fair. What was your project about? And what have you been doing since then?

Our project was on a farming method we refer to as the Unique Simplified Hydroponics Method, in which we grow vegetables in a mixture of sawdust and manure in boxes.

After we won the award, we were very keen on getting the project started and teaching people this method. Luckily, my mother happened to mention this to a friend of hers, who happened to tell us of a farming community and helped us set up the meeting with the chief’s assistant so we could discuss this. He then arranged for us to make a presentation to a group of seven farmers telling them about our project. After they had agreed we went to the individual homes to begin and after we planted we continued to do weekly check ups to make sure everything was OK.

An arrangement was made that we plant alongside their existing plots so that they can see the difference. Their gardens were ideal for us since they are fenced and livestock cannot destroy the plants. We visited some of the homesteads. In each homestead, we demonstrated with 14 boxes with 84 plants, 42 lettuce and 42 spinach plants.

We worked together with the families. It is worth noting that this created a lot of excitement amongst the neighbors, who had never seen this method of farming. I am sure they will be keen to try it out once they see its success.

The simplified hydroponics developed by Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Mahlalela use 90 waste: old cardboard boxes, sawdust or grasses in the growing medium, and mature chicken or cow manure for fertilizer. Credit: Sakhiwe Shongwe.

How did you choose which plants to use? How long did they need to grow? How did they do compared with the way the farmers usually plant?

Lettuce is really popular, so it was the obvious choice. The farmers also had lettuce growing, so that was ideal for us to compare with. As usual lettuce takes about eight weeks and, considering the few hiccups we had, it was very successful and of great size. Despite this, the lettuce from the hydroponics side was better than that of the [traditional local methods for] subsistence farming and that said a lot.

What challenges did you face? What did you do to get past them?

We faced challenges like weather and water availability, but since the method saves water, the farmers didn’t struggle that much. Also, our previous manure had not properly aged so the vegetables were suffering due to that factor. But after finding out, we swiftly acted and added mature manure to make the soil fertile. We also transplanted with younger seedlings since some were unable to recover. Soon the farmers were harvesting and they were mainly impressed by the quality of the leaves.

What are you doing in school now? Are you still studying science?

School has been very busy this year and since starting a new syllabus at school I’m doing the science stream. So I’m currently doing biology, physics/chemistry and agricultural sciences. I’d say it’s going quite well.

Is there any advice you have for other students who are interested in creating science projects like yours?

I believe that the key to achieving any goal is imagination and dedication. Think outside of the box and think of the endless possibilities. If you have an idea you believe in and would like to achieve it. The best way to make it a reality is to dedicate your time to fulfilling it.