Global Teacher Prize winner inspires Kenyan teens to produce power from plants

By Verenardo Meeme

April 3, 2019

While refining fiber, two young students at Kenya’s Keriko Mixed Day Secondary School observed a chemical interaction in prickly sisal pastes that illuminated an idea.

With the help of their science and mathematics teacher, Peter Tabichi, who just became the first Kenyan to win the Global Teacher Prize, the teenagers developed their idea into an innovative way to generate power from plant paste extracts.

Hannah Wambui and Teresiah Kanini successfully executed the project by mixing pastes squeezed from sisal, lemon and euphorbia plants and placing them into empty dry cell containers to produce electricity.

The students entered their experiment in the chemistry category of the Kenya Science and Engineering Fair and emerged overall winners. If they can secure funding, they hope to compete in the 2019 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Ariz., this May.

“Sisal juice is very irritating once it gets in contact with the skin, just the way euphorbia sap is tingly and lemon is bitter,” Kanini said. “Having been familiar with the experiences, we ventured into researching how these plants can be of value, given the harsh reactions they provoke.”

In an exclusive interview with the Cornell Alliance for Science, Tabichi recalled that the plant paste acted as an electrode and produced a current that began as just 1.5 volts and gradually increased to 25 volts — enough to power a light bulb for 30 minutes.

“You see our project seeks to address the challenges of frequent power shortages as well as the high cost of electricity and its installation by using readily available materials,” Kanini explained.

The students said they have demonstrated proof of concept with their project, which is environmentally friendly. The plant extracts can be repeatedly changed over time, prolonging the life of dry cells that are otherwise discarded once they expire.

Despite coming from a remote school with limited resources, including a shortage of teachers, the two students defied all odds to beat big, well-known schools in the competition.

“We do not have a library yet, but we sourced books from neighboring schools,” Wambui told Kenya’s Standard newspaper. “We used a makeshift laboratory. Since it was during the April holidays, we conducted our research without much interference.”

President Kenyatta has committed to donating 20 milllion Ksh (US$200,000) to Keriko school to expand infrastructure as well as encourage students to embrace Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

“I would encourage students to embrace STEM; that is where Africans will find solutions to problems facing our communities and sustainably address the challenges the continent is facing, like food and water shortages and climate change,” his announcement stated.

The plant power generating project is called WAKA Cell, a name derived from the first syllables of the students’ last names. It translates into “lighting up” in Swahili. The project is now exhibited in Keriko school’s poorly equipped laboratory where it has already inspired more young scientists to upgrade the project. They are using supplemented agents obtained by modifying human waste and urea to complement the plant paste for increased sustainability, Tabichi said.

“I have been encouraging students to realize that everything is possible and that they can translate ideas into a solution through science,” said Tabichi, whose personal story and recent award underscore that message. “What we need at this level is skilled professionals in organic chemistry who can guide students to upscale such innovations into tangible outputs.’’

Tabichi, one of eight children, lost his mother at the age of 11. His father, Lawrence, inspired him to be a teacher. The elder Tabichi said his son was unique growing up and enjoyed building things and fixing electronic equipment.  “I thought he would become an engineer as he also excelled in academia,” the proud father said.

Tabichi, whose $1 million global prize was cheered by Kenyans and recognized by the nation’s president, said the only way to teach and promote science is to introduce the strategy of active learning as a means to enhance creativity and innovation.

Kathiani Secondary School Principal Nicholas Nyaga told the Cornell Alliance for Science that the award is a great inspiration to teachers and confirmation that teaching is indeed a noble course. He agreed with Tabichi that teachers can best influence and touch the lives of people through their day-to-day teaching activities.

A Franciscan brother, Tabichi donates 80 percent of his salary to pay for the schooling of vulnerable children and orphans in the village where he teaches, as well as fund local community projects, including education, sustainable agriculture and peace-building.

“It is in giving that we receive,” Tabichi said. “As Franciscan brothers, our way of life is simplicity and humility serving the poor people and the vulnerable. What matters in life is the lives you change. When you give you also receive, and to be a good teacher, you have to do more and talk less.’’

Tabichi, 36, initially worked in a privileged private school. But when he visited a nearby village, he was touched by what he saw, as the school lacked sufficient teachers and essential facilities. He felt that by joining the marginalized school he would make more impact.

In addition to being the first Kenyan to win the prestigious international prize, Tabichi is also the first African male teacher to achieve that honor. He was chosen from 10 contenders who were shortlisted from an initial 50 candidates selected from among 10,000 applicants for the award.

”I cannot say that I am the best teacher in the world, but I can say that I have won,” he said. “The award represents teachers and students who are struggling. The award is hope for them to achieve more and I am their voice.’’