US: Penn State Greenhouse project fights global hunger

When the humanitarian engineering and social entrepreneurship program at Penn State created what it thought was the perfect technology to aid farmers in Africa, all it needed was the right partner to help promote it. “It’s not about your technology, it’s all about the people,” said Khanjan Mehta, director of the entrepreneurship program. “You don’t have to be an engineer to grow a smart business.”

The entrepreneurship program is composed of a group of students who work on projects to “create products that meet people’s needs” in countries that lack technology and resources, Mehta said.

One product is an affordable greenhouse, which students designed and customized according to the location and resources of their customers. The students hope the greenhouses will help farmers break a cycle of food insecurity, according to their blog.

In Kenya, the venture found its partner in Penn State alumna Wanjiru Kamau, who oversees the operations at Mavuuno Greenhouses in Nairobi. The firm was licensed to create and sell the greenhouse designs to farmers all around East Africa.

Meanwhile, other developing countries are being lined up for the greenhouse project. Cameroon and Haiti are next.

Kamau said she became interested in the program because of its mission to fight hunger.

She won the Purpose Prize in 2011 for her African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation, a program she established to support African immigrants transition into American society. The prize awards $100,000 to individuals older than 60 who are active in solving social problems in a community, according to encore.org.

Looking to invest her money in a project, Kamau learned of Mehta and the greenhouse project from her son, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Nairobi who has known Mehta since 2004.

Kamau and Mehta met in February 2012 and launched Mavuuno Greenhouses in May of that year, he said. The objective was to help small farmers in a sustainable way, he added.

“I want to try to teach people how to treat the soil so the soil could produce healthy plants for the people, feed the body, and at the same time get money out of it,” Kamau said in a phone interview while in the U.S. for personal reasons.

Mavuuno Greenhouses’ mission isn’t just to provide greenhouses to farmers but to teach them how to use them and help them market their products once harvested, she said.


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