fight drought

High school student Aarushi Wadhwa led a team in winning the environment category of the annual Ashoka Changemaker Challenge for developing ‘Aqua-Pods’. (photo provided)

The Ashoka Foundation recently announced the winners of the annual Ashoka Changemaker Challenge, with Indian American high schooler from Campbell, California-based Westmont High School Aarushi Wadhwa among the winners.

Wadhwa was part of a team that has found a unique way to conserve water and tackle drought. The project, Aqua-Pods, won the top prize in the environment category at this year’s Ashoka Changemaker Challenge.

According to the profile of Aqua-Pods on the Changemaker website, the team first came up with the idea for Aqua-Pods in October 2017 and have continued extensive experiments, research and development since.

The team’s project is addressing the problem of the biggest water wastage amongst humans on a global scale. Research and studies by the UN and other agencies have shown that out of the 4 trillion m^3 of freshwater used per year, 75 percent is for agriculture and irrigation purposes, while 50 percent of it goes to waste over watering, evaporation, wind, and runoff. With water being such an essential part of sustaining our environment, we must reduce its wastage, it said.

After brainstorming, researching and discussing with experts like master gardeners and local nurseries, the team came up with an innovative solution for the problem of water wastage associated with gardening and agriculture, called Aqua-Pods — biodegradable sponges that are held inside pockets of cylindrical attachments lined with a weed sheet, it said on their profile.

The plant grows inside this attachment. When they water the plant, Aqua-Pods soak up the excess water, and when the plant needs water, the sponges release the previously absorbed water to the plants (using osmosis).

The team has conducted an experiment over six weeks that successfully proves that the soil with Aqua-Pods has higher moisture content, and also retains water for a much longer period, according to the profile.

The data shows that Aqua-Pods provides three times water savings. Even if Aqua-Pods makes a difference by 1 percent, 8 billion m^3 of water is saved, which is more than the current global freshwater shortage. In addition, studies have shown that plants grow best in fertile soil – with optimal pH value, and high nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate levels.

Aqua-Pods contain natural ingredients like coffee grounds, potato and banana peels that have proven to increase soil fertility, it added.

“We all know that water is crucial to life, nature and sustainability. As humans inhabiting this magnificent plant, it is our duty to make sure future generations can enjoy it as well, and the first and most important step to sustainability is to reduce the wastage of water. Luckily, we have science, technology, engineering and math to help us,” Wadhwa said in the Aqua-Pods profile.

“There are a few different STEM aspects to Aqua-Pods. This includes the fundamental scientific phenomenon of osmosis which allows the water initially soaked up by the Aqua-Pod sponge, a semi-permeable material, to be released to the plant when needed. This reduces water evaporation, and individuals don't have to worry about over-watering,” she added.

“Science also shows that natural ingredients such as potato peels and coffee grounds help fertilize soil and result in the optimal pH level for plant wellness. In order to create a prototype, we used the engineering design process to make the ideal contraption which could easily slide in and out of a variety of pots, and can hold several Aqua-Pod sponges. Using engineering, we were able to create different Aqua-Pod models to adhere to various environments from at-home gardening to large plantations,” the teen explained.

In middle school, Wadhwa was the president of her school’s environmental club, which was responsible for watering the school’s trees during the year.

While watering these plants, she said she started to realize how much water was wasted.

“We would pour buckets of water for these trees, never knowing when we were over watering, and half of that water would be evaporated. Around the same time, I learned about the scientific phenomenon of osmosis – the movement of water from a region of high concentration to a region of low concentration, which results in an equal balance of concentration in both regions,” she explained.

This phenomenon, Wadhwa said, always fascinated her and stuck in the back of her mind. While growing up, she says she occasionally helped with gardening and learned that her parents would use their tea bags as a soil fertilizer and balance the pH level.

“As a culmination of these learnings and experiences, the idea of Aqua-Pods was born,” she said.

Compared to existing solutions, Aqua-Pods offers a unique advantage of containing natural ingredients, like grounded coffee, potato and banana peels which increases fertility by adding potassium, phosphate, and nitrogen and providing an optimal pH value, Wadhwa said.

Existing solutions, such as hydrogels, are effective in water retention, but are toxic and not suitable for plants. The team has used the business model canvas and competitive analysis to make sure their our product is cost effective and better than existing solutions. Aqua-Pods currently have sales in person and Amazon and have several paying customers, she said.

Aqua-Pods is a scalable solution and plans to target a global consumer base across all agricultural market segments to make a positive impact in the world.

“We would like to reduce the manufacturing cost, which is currently $2, in order to make this even more cost-effective,” she said. “Another step forward would be to build a strong brand and team to market this effective solution and also begin to mass produce Aqua-Pods,” she added.

Aqua-Pods also plans on distributing the product to countries which suffer from severe water scarcity.

“According to the UN, around 700 million people in 43 countries suffer today from water scarcity, and I believe Aqua-Pods is the best step forward to save water,” Wadhwa said.

The Ashoka Foundation, which started nearly 40 years ago, supports social entrepreneurs as they bring ideas to solve the world’s problems. In recent years, T-Mobile and its foundation have partnered with Ashoka to support innovation among youth.

Apart from environment, the other categories in this year’s challenge were technology and education. In developing the Aqua-Pods, Wadhwa’s team conducted research, met experts and visited local nurseries; Julie Reynolds-Grabbe, a master gardener at the University of California, became her mentor.

Aqua-Pods has partnered with the Nancy Allen Crooks Foundation in Kenya and an environmental initiative in India.

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