SA Science in Action winners

Shongwe, left, and Mahlalela

Two teenagers from the southern African country of Swaziland have won Scientific American's inaugural Science in Action award, part of the Google Science Fair. The prize is awarded to a project that addresses a social, environmental or health issue to make a practical difference in the lives of a group or community. This year’s winners are Sakhiwe Shongwe of Siteki and Bonkhe Mahlalela of Simunye, both 14. Their project explores an affordable way to provide hydroponics to poor subsistence farmers, enabling them to grow their crops and vegetables in very large quantities and within limited space without using soil. In addition to a $50,000 prize, Shongwe and Mahlalela will have access to a year’s mentorship and will travel to Google’s California headquarters in July to compete in the 13-to-14-year-old age category in the overall Google Science Fair. Here are excerpts from an interview conducted via e-mail with each winner before they knew they had won, by Scientific American’s Rachel Scheer.

Q. Why did you decide to enter the Google Science Fair?

Shongwe: After our science teacher told us about the Google Science Fair in class, I saw the GSF as an instrument and opportunity to showcase my science skills. Being born and raised in Swaziland, I have experienced the challenges that our country is facing. My work in many community development projects, through the mentorship of our teacher and environmental club patron teacher, stimulated me to ask questions. Visiting the GSF site for the first time in January 2012, the phrase that dominated my mind was “Everybody has a question, what is yours?" I quickly wrote a few of my questions and that was the start of the project.

Mahlalela: At first it was just about helping my friend who has taken teacher’s advice to think big and take part in such activities such as the Google Science Fair. I felt the need to help myself, my family and the community at large. We then asked our teacher if this is a good idea. I remember our teacher saying,"Go for it boys, this is brilliant." I never believed in myself but today Google Science Fair has built a very high self-esteem within me.

Q. How does your project impact the community you grew up in?

Shongwe: I believe that Swaziland neither needs the tons of food aid coming from western and eastern countries, nor complex strategies which the country cannot afford to solve low food productivity. Educating subsistence farmers is the key, and our experimental project has proven to be one of the best approaches. If we can empower Swazi subsistence farmers with such knowledge of simplified hydroponics, producing organic crops, one challenge, i.e. food shortage in the country, could be significantly reduced. Apart from each family having enough food, surplus crops could be sold to local markets reducing the high food price which are mainly a result of transportation cost of vegetables from South Africa. In addition, the project has positive environmental impacts as it promotes the use of Three R’s [reduce, reuse, recycle] and eliminates soil tilling which results in soil erosion.

Q. What does being recognized as a Science in Action Award finalist mean to you?

Shongwe: It means a lot as I have once considered being a scientist and this could be the start of it all. I see the Google Science Fair as a stage to prove to the community that I don’t have to be an elder within the community to offer help. And yes I cannot express my feelings enough not to mention how Swaziland could change for the better if I win the award. Even if it could not change the whole country, targeting Bonkhe’s community could make a difference, creating a self-sustainable community by developing the people.

Mahlalela: It lets me know that my age does not limit my abilities and that I can be as useful to the community as much as any other person. Being part of a solution in a local community even if we don’t win by the recognition is as important as wining the prize. I believe in myself today and know my time is now not sometime tomorrow when I am old and may not even having energy to solve our community problems.

Q. Who are your scientific inspirations and why?

Shongwe: My scientific inspirations are all the people and businesses which the community has at heart. This includes my patron teachers, friends who helped me in my project, and business people who invest in community development.

Mahlalela: Albert Einstein and Stephen William Hawking are my scientific inspirations. I find it hard to believe how all their discoveries and contributions to our understanding about the universe is possible. I’m very passionate about physics and physical science. Space science and all the scientific theories and discoveries evolving each day inspire me most.

Q. What do you think was the most revolutionary invention of the past 100 years and why? What about the past 10 years?

Shongwe: I’ll focus on the past 10 years; I think it is the ARVs (antiretroviral drugs) because they save lives. One major challenge of Swaziland today is HIV/AIDS. Swaziland has more than 100,000 orphans (+/- 8.3% of the country’s population) due to HIV/AIDS death in just 10 years, this makes me think of ARV’s for Swaziland is the most revolutionary invention.

However I see every invention revolving around the introduction of computers, internet and software as substantial. Without these all other inventions could take much more time and effort to invent.

Mahlalela: For the past 100 years I think the communication devices and transportation equipment, such as the airplane, is the most revolutionary since it opened a gateway toward globalisation.

For the past 10 years I believe it’s ARVs since they saved a lot of people’s lives.


For more on their project and to read about all the Google Science Fair finalists, click here.