Nigerian innovator with heart

A software engineer from Abuja has been honoured for a project born out of devastating personal experience

At the age of 11, Oscar Ekponimo (30) watched his father suffer a stroke and subsequently lose his ability to work.

“Those years were very challenging. There were times when I went to school without food and I came back without food, so that entire phase really impacted my life,” he says.

“If we had one small meal at the end of the day, it was a good day. I recall one instance when all I ate in a 48-hour period was a biscuit snack a friend shared with me at school.”

Thinking about that period is still very difficult for Ekponimo – intensified by the fact that his father passed away just a few years before his work as a software engineer went global.

“I always said that sometime in the future, I’d do something – whatever that might be, using my skills or being in government to change policy – to ensure that other people didn’t go through what I did,” he says.

He’s now been awarded as part of the transformative Rolex Awards for 2016 with a cash grant to help scale his impactful social enterprise. He was one of five Young Laureates honoured at a ceremony in Los Angeles earlier this year. The luxury watch brand gave him and each of the other four Laureates a grant of CHF50 000 (about R673 178 at the time of writing) – funds that Ekponimo will use to scale his innovative Chowberry app.

The cloud-based technology allows retailers to scan the barcodes of food items three months before their expiry dates. As the end of the items’ shelf-life approaches, the software sends out notifications, resulting in automatic discounts on these products.

It also alerts low-income consumers and food-relief agencies of the discounts, so that the food can be bought at the lower prices.

“Most of the shops aren’t willing to donate the food, so we had to craft it in a value exchange system,” he explains.

He’ll also use the money to expand the network and partnerships with retailers, thus ensuring there’s a higher volume of food available to go around.

His target is to reach 100 000 poor households. “I also want to invest in software engineering, hire more engineers and build the product into something more robust that can be scaled for greater impact,” he says.

The other four Young Laureates include Christine Keung (24), the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the US who’s returned to China to empower rural women to reduce soil and water pollution; Joseph Cook (29) from the UK, who’s exploring polar ice microbes in Greenland; Junto Ohki (29) from Japan, who’s created an online, crowd-sourced sign language database that bridges the gap between 126 sign languages currently available, and French-born Sarah Toumi (29), who’s based herself in Tunisia to spearhead an acacia-planting project that prevents desertification.

 

From left to right: Junto Okhi, Sarah Toumi, Joseph Cook, Christine Keung and Oscar Ekponimo

The five Laureates awarded by Rolex with a CHF100 000 (R1,3 million) grant include Andrew Bastawrous (36) who left his job as an eye surgeon with the UK’s National Health Service and moved to Kenya, knowing that at least 285 million visually impaired people live in low-income countries, often with no access to diagnostic tests and treatment.

He’s developed the Portable Eye Examination Kit (Peek), which incorporates a free Android app as well as an adaptor that fits over a smartphone camera, allowing the user to examine a patient’s retina. The brilliance of the system is that anyone can be trained to use it, a major disruptor to resource-poor areas.

The other four are Peruvian biologist Kerstin Forsberg (32), who works with local fishermen to conserve Manta rays, German biologist Vreni Häussermann (46), who’s working towards conserving the fjords of Chilean Patagonia, the Irish founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab Conor Walsh (35) and Indian engineer and agricultural innovator Sonam Wangchuk (52).

From left to right: Andrew Bastawrous, Kerstin Forsberg, Conor Walsh, Vreni Häussermann and Sonam Wangchuk