Iowa State Team wins worldwide Food Solutions Challenge

For three Iowa State University graduate students, winning the worldwide 2018 Food Solutions Challenge was more than an honor—it meant they could help reduce food waste in their homeland.

The Iowa State team received $5,000 recently for its proposal to improve the shelf life of cassava, which is a staple food in Africa and can rot within three days after harvest. Team members include Samuel Kiprotich, food science and human nutrition; Mike Sserunjogi, agricultural and biosystems engineering; and Emmanuel Nsamba, genetics.

“I felt this competition gave me the perfect opportunity to be part of a new generation of African youth striving to make a difference in their communities through scientific innovation,” Kiprotich said.

“The competition helped me understand my potential for scientific innovations and leadership. Now, I can use this experience and combine it with my major in post-harvest technology to improve food security globally,” Sserunjogi said.

The competition challenged students to find solutions to both climate change and food security. The 2018 Food Solutions Challenge program is supported by Monsanto, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and Net Impact. The students were asked to answer this question: How can we reduce food loss before it reaches the consumer in order to increase the amount of available edible food and lessen the impact on climate?

“I got a deeper understanding of how innovation can be transformed from an idea into a practical solution that can help address challenges facing the human race today. I also learned how to effectively communicate complex scientific ideas to a diverse audience,” Kiprotich said.

This year’s Food Solutions Challenge began in November 2017 with more than 1,600 students participating in 16 events in 13 countries. The events generated 133 submissions to answer the challenge, but only five teams were chosen as semi-finalists. Those teams included Iowa State University, which won first place; Ashoka University in India, which took second place; Bard College in New York, which took third place, followed by the University of California, Berkeley and the Buea, Cameroon professional chapter.

Nigeria loses 40 percent or 21 million tons of cassava every year to spoilage. The Iowa State team focused on improving the cassava plant to produce tubers with a longer shelf life after harvest. The students plan to transfer genes from a waxy desert plant to yield tubers with a protective layer of wax. The layer of wax would help prevent rapid moisture loss and rotting and in turn lengthen the shelf life of cassava.

“I never believed in genetics as an innovation that could drive societal transformation. But for this particular problem, food loss, I approached it using genetic principles which is my field of study,” said Nsamba. “Science can be a great innovation.”

All three students graduated from Makerere University in Uganda and partnered with Iowa State students in the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods program in Uganda in 2014 and 2015, which led them to pursue graduate work at Iowa State. Since 2003, Iowa State and Makerere University students and CSRL staff have worked with Kamuli District residents in Uganda to implement sustainable solutions to meet urgent needs in the community, such as sustainable food solutions.

Net Impact, the lead sponsor of the challenge, is a global community of 100,000 students and professionals who work to address social challenges, protect the environment, invent new products and orient business toward the greater good. Visit

The team’s video proposal can be viewed at