Creating fertilizer out of vegetable scraps, finding my lion 🦁 and discovering why 35% of food in the USA is wasted
Hi everyone! Wonderful to meet you/see you again! My name is Rachel. I am a 16 y/o activator at TKS working on leveraging biotech to improve yields and livelihoods for small holder farmers in rural Africa. I have worked with gene editing to create super crops for Sub Saharan Africa, solar panels made out of bacteria, nanofertilizers to increase yields and decrease environmental impact and more! I’m the cohost of the TechnoGypsie Podcast, and an ultra runner obsessed with pushing my personal limits and finding out what I’m truly capable of.
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Anaerobic Digestion Project Update
Since September I have been obsessed with the fertilizer problem in South Africa. The problem boils down to two things:
Fertilizer is too expensive for South African farmers to afford. (ie: the accessibility of fertilizer is very low.)
Synthetic fertilizer leads to long term damage to soils which decreases yields. (Another massive environmental impact of synthetic fertilizers is runoff which causes dead zones. You can read one of my best friend’s, Apoorva’s, amazing article about dead zones to learn more about this problem and other solutions!)
I have landed on anaerobic digestion as a technology that is perfectly positioned to provide African farmers with the autonomy to solve this problem.
Anaerobic digestion is a process where bacteria break down organic waste (like food waste, agricultural waste and human excrement) to produce biogas, a renewable gas that can be used for cooking, heating and electricity.
And here is where my project comes in - the by product of this process is digestate, which is a nutrients rich sludge that contains high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the three crucial nutrients that make up fertilizer. Digestate is usually overlooked as an expense to the anaerobic digestion process, and because of this, digestate is usually either dumped into landfills or thrown in streams. Some places will apply the digestate directly to fields as a compost fertilizer, which does provide the soil with nutrients, but nothing near the degree that synthetic fertilizer does.
My goal for the next month is to propose an idea for a way to process digestate to increase the nutrient concentration and improve effectiveness, so digestate can be used as a replacement to synthetic fertilizers. (Massive thank you to Nora Goldstein who has been an incredible mentor throughout this project!)
This month I worked on really understanding how the anaerobic digestion process works, and the socio-cultural implications of anaerobic digestion in South Africa. (aka I’ve been reading a lot of research papers and playing around with my design skills.) You can check out the scrollytelling article I made about my research below! 👇
A Scrolly Telling Story: The Why and How of Anaerobic Digestion in South Africa
Finding my 🦁
You are in the safari on a land cruiser, and get out to take a picture of the beautiful sunrise. The tour guide doesn’t see you hop off, and revs the engine, leaving down the dusty rode without you.
You are now stranded in the safari alone. Great.
So, you obviously leverage this perfect opportunity a nap in the shade of a tree.
A stirring noise in the distance suddenly wakes you up. Your eyes fly open and scan the flat safari around you.
There is a lion in the distance.
A hungry looking lion.
The lion saunters closer and closer to you.
Your brain is racing one thousand miles an hour. What do I do?! WHAT DO I DO?!
You come to the conclusion that you have two options: fight, or flight. If you stay and fight, you are basically dead meat. There is no hope. The lion will 100% tear you to pieces.
If you take the flight option, you have a 99% of not making it, but a 1% of potentially out running the lion with minimal scratches and blood (if you’re lucky).
What option do you choose?
What would be the thing that would power you to run as fast as you could? That thing that pushes you forward when your legs are past the point of exhaustion and your heart is burning like a fire in your chest. When you feel like you are about to collapse, what is that thing that will push you to run faster and farther than you have ever ran before?
This is a story Ian told us last year in velocity that I have been thinking about lately. What is the metaphorical lion in my life that motivates and pushes me to do what I do? As Kevin (an amazing TKS alumni) asked me, why not just be a normal teenager and go to the mall and hang out with friends?
My answer to this question, the lion that drives me forward, is the anger and sadness I have in me about societal problems. Knowing that 700 million people in the world live on less than $2.15 a day, 160 million children are stuck in child labor, trafficking and slavery, and that 1.8 billion people live in countries with complete water scarcity, makes me mad. I have fallen in deep hate with these problems. Why are we sending humans to space when we can’t even feed our entire population?
There is too much suffering in the world. Problems aren’t being solved fast enough.
My lion is the billions of people suffering in the world. My greatest fear is to die knowing I could have done something to help reduce this suffering, but yet I chose not to. This is my definition for failure in my life - reaching the end of my life wishing I did more and worked harder to solve these problems.
I genuinely want to reduce human suffering, eradicate poverty and stop stupid problems from happening (like the fact that 10M die from *easily* preventable diseases & deaths). And this is my
I really enjoyed this conversation with leading food waste and loss expert, Eva Goulburne, about why 35% of the food produced in the USA is wasted.
Stay tuned on the TechnoGypsie Podcast website for an exciting episode on AIxEducation that will be released later this week.
Other cool things
We went to the Thunder Bay Community Choir’s advent concert which was phenomenal! Massive shout out to Bill, a good friend (and loyal subscriber of the newsletter😉,) who was the best tenor in the choir!
Broke down the problem of agricultural waste in rural India during a TKS session with the amazing Ciara and Anya. Check out our memo here! (It’s still in progress. We will be implementing feedback we received and changing some things. I’ll link an updated version of our memo in next month’s newsletter!)
I got interviewed by the Inside Quantum Technology News about my experience as a young female in a male dominated, deep tech environment, and how I leveraged networking to go from 0 to 1 in the industry. Stay tuned for next month’s newsletter where I’ll share the published article!
Listened to Discomfort Is The Price Of Admission To A Meaningful Life on the Rich Roll Podcast which I would highly recommend. It’s a beautiful conversation about embracing pain to become the best version of yourself.
Mentor showcase! I am so excited for the showcase where all activates get to share their create (final project) for their focus. My create will be a process or additive to increase the nutrient concentration and effectiveness of digestate. This means that I will be working very hard in the next few weeks to come up with an innovative approach to digestate nutrient concentration.
Over the Christmas break I am extremely excited to build a hydroponics system in our basement. I have all the materials, so now all I need is a few full days of building and it will be up and running! You can expect a video and article of the process and final product coming in the next month.
I will be applying my anaerobic digestion project to the National Geographic Slingshot Challenge.
Working with Kevin and some other activate and TKS alumni to build a world-class website to break down the World’s Biggest Problems (WBP) and their associated root causes, with clear problem profiles and statements. The TL;DR is to build a site to get the world to suck less. There are lots of great sites for data and economics, but no great sites for WBP’s. The hypothesis is that there is an information gap about the root causes of WBP’s (aka smart people don’t know how to solve WBP’s). If we have a site to break down WBP’s, we can give smart people the information and root causes of the problem and accelerate the rate and amount of people working on WBP’s. (**I am very excited to start working on this.**)
Taking time off at Christmas to relax and enjoy time with the family! (This will include lots of outdoor adventures like skiing, snowshoeing and skating!)
And that, my friends, is what I have been up to this month! It has been a jam packed month (as always) full of reflecting, research, learning, running, failing → growing.
Thank you for sticking with me till the end! See you all in 2023. Have a wonderful December and very Merry Christmas! 🎄🎁🌟
Thanks for reading! ❤️Rachel
Personal website, LinkedIn, Medium, YouTube
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WOW!!! Sunshine you have had an amazing month - I can't wait to read your interview and see your create!! (and thank you for the shoutout <3)
This is not Rachel this is Grace I didnt know how to get it off your acount :)
RACHEL . YOU ARE TOO INSPIERING PERSON.
(P.s- you never told me that you got interveiwed!)
(P.ps- I love how you gave a shout out to bill, but he was the best in the quior not only in the tenor.)