Ireland’s young scientists experience first-hand development and climate challenges facing Zambia

BTYSTE development award winners visit communities and Irish aid projects

One of the most prestigious prizes at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition is an award for the project that best addresses a development challenge. It may not be up there in lights among the big winners but, unquestionably, it is impactful where it matters most.

Self Help Africa’s science for development award, sponsored by Irish Aid, has been in place since 2006. It usually comes with an opportunity to visit Africa, where the relevance of the winners’ endeavours invariably becomes a lot clearer.

Covid intervened for several years, which meant that opportunity was not possible. But 2023 made up for it with many of the winners from this year and previous years travelling together to Zambia.

The group were a fine example of the smart, upcoming generation – many of whom have strong roots beyond Ireland. They displayed acute awareness of climate change and of the need for a better approach to applying its solutions. Their intent on making a contribution for the betterment of others was already evident from the BTYSTE, but that ambition remained to the fore.


The trip organised by Self Help Africa criss-crossed the country from a main base in Lusaka over a hectic week. There may be new roads built by China travelling in every direction, but the basic way of farming and absence of enabling technology remains almost everywhere beyond its capital.

Above all, the trip illustrated first-hand just how vulnerable the southern African country is; primarily due to its disturbed rainy season, exacerbated by global warming. Yet it also revealed the immense potential of agriculture to lift millions of subsistence farmers out of poverty – and to diversify from monoculture, meaning over-reliance on maize.

The projects

The relevance of the winners’ research was immediately obvious.

2023 winners Vedh Kannan and Will Carkner from Sutton Park School in Dublin (now sixth-year students) won for their work in developing their prototype “blood box”, a reusable, low-cost diagnostic tool for detecting blood-borne diseases, especially malaria.

2022 winners Jona Garcia, Claudine Mulihano and Iman Shittu from St Louis Secondary School, Dundalk, devised a renewable and electricity-free cooling system for food refrigeration that can help combat world hunger. It deploys sunlight and saltwater and could be of benefit in communities with limited or no access to electricity.

Food waste is a huge problem in the rich developed world but also for different reasons in poor countries, notably in Africa, where more than 650 million people live without electricity. Jona is now studying advanced therapeutic technologies in RCSI; Claudine is studying podiatry at the University of Galway and Iman is studying business and law in UCD.

2021 winner Aronnya Khan Zakaria from Castletroy College, Limerick, won with research on racial prejudice in children, which seeks to identify why some people learn to view the world through racist stereotypes. She focused on five- to seven-year-olds in Ireland and Bangladesh with their parents. She is studying computational social science at UCD.

2020 winners Sophie McElligott (with Salome Maher Bordalo, who could not make the trip) from St Joseph’s Mercy Secondary School, Navan, won for their project that proposed the creation of a reusable sanitary pad for school-going girls in poorer countries, together with an awareness-raising campaign to normalise conversation about menstrual health among younger people who experience both period stigma and poverty (not having access to safe, hygienic menstrual products). Sophie is studying science in UCD.

Having lived in Zambia for five years, Claudine, who is originally from Congo, came with an instant icebreaker as she speaks Nyanja, one of the most widely spoken languages in the country. On her return, she saw “a different side to the country now”; climate change’s footprint having become more obvious.

She was impressed by the level of collaboration in communities on food production but especially “how the women work and are taking the lead in most of the villages. It is was very different and inspiring”.

For Sophie, on her first visit to Africa, what was known from viewing through television was humanised a lot more, she underlined. She was struck by “a great sense of community” everywhere they went, which was the mechanism for collaboration and fighting adversity.

“Coming here and hearing the personal experiences of people’s lives made me realise even more that our projects can make a massive impact in the people’s lives,” Jona added.

Aronnya relished the opportunity to immerse herself in the distinct nature, wildlife and food culture of Zambia, which added up to “an amazing experience”, but she also availed to the opportunity to discuss racism and gender issues.

Vedh, who is originally from Chennai in southern India, was pleased to see how programmes benefittedpeople; whether it was school pupils in Gwembe using hydroponics to grow crops and vegetables (deploying a water base rather than soil) or the tangible progress made by small farmers by changing production by using climate-resilient seeds.

“We are convinced that we have to find time to develop our device,” Will said, after hearing how people have had malaria three and four times with no immediate means to know if they have the disease.

Before going home they had an opportunity to present their projects to researchers at the University of Zambia, who immediately responded by outlining how their ideas could be advanced.


We spoke to Mari Cahalane ahead of this year’s BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition #btyoungscientist #rds

♬ One Night - Frank Bramble &

Jona recounts how they came across a similar device to theirs in a visit to a village in the south, but it involved the use of charcoal – the burning of which is a major pollutant and cause of deforestation across much of Africa. In contrast, the cooling system, in effect, involves a renewable fuel. “The current option is impacting in a negative way. Our solution benefits them and the environment.”

The challenge and uncertainties facing people in Zambia made Iman look back at her childhood in Nigeria and conclude it was “very privileged” in comparison, she said. But having been a reluctant entrant to the BTYSTE because of having little background in science, she was delighted to have taken part – and said she now looked forward to going back to Nigeria “to help out”.

They briefed Irish Ambassador to Zambia Bronagh Carr on their visit and had a chat about how best to support ongoing engagement with young people in Zambia. She commended them for their focus on technology opportunities and emphasis on building lasting relationships with their peers there, especially on climate change issues.

They were joined by Self Help Africa chief executive Feargal O’Connell, who highlighted the importance of global citizenship education in supporting people to take actions in pursuit of the UN sustainable development goals. The award, he said, builds on Ireland’s strong linkages with the developing world, and demonstrates brilliantly at a time of global gloom and doom that second-level students can develop scalable solutions under both development and climate headings.

Vedh explained how their visit to Gwembe attracted a lot of interest in their device, and said they had agreed to stay in touch and exchange information with local students through the “junior engineers and technologists society” in their district, whose members hope to build the device themselves. A practical way of doing this, said Vedh, would be through mentoring and in finding some way to provide parts for the students to work with.

There was much enthusiasm for finding a way to establish a smaller version of the BTYSTE, as has been done in Kenya, Tanzania and Jordan, with a particular focus on development and climate solutions.

Sophie said the visit “has definitely changed what I will become”, adding that it “is like a gift we’re receiving ... it’s going to change the trajectory of our lives”, andwhile Jona said, “it was an educational experience that will forever change the way I look at things in my life.” There was every indication their verdicts were shared by their travelling companions.

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