One day when I was 4, my grandad took me to his garden shed, gave me a hammer and began to teach me how to make toys from leftover materials.

I was thrilled to discover new uses for old scraps, and my lifelong interest in sustainable design was born.

By the time I was in secondary school, I began to win national awards for my design projects. Grandad inspired me again, this time to invent a toothpaste dispenser for him and other arthritis sufferers who found it difficult to squeeze a tube. My design incorporated levers to change the squeezing action into a pushing one, and it could be used for anything that came in a tube, not just toothpaste. The awards were a great incentive to press on, but seeing Grandad use my dispenser gave me the greatest satisfaction. I simply wanted to make simple products that could help people.

“As an inventor, my dream was to see people benefitting from my product.”

And so I took on the challenge of making the journey more productive for African women and children who walked miles every day to collect water using only one or two jerry cans. I designed a water carrier that would make their journey easier and allow them to transport up to five containers of water at a time. The carrier could also be adapted to carry firewood or other heavy or awkward loads. My carrier also reduced the risk of neck or back damage caused by carrying water on one’s head or using a yoke. As women suffered from back pain and problems, they needed their children to assist them or undertake these arduous tasks in their place. It is particularly gratifying that my carrier is designed to be manufactured in Africa so it can help create jobs even as it allows children to attend school and improves the quality of people’s lives.

A water carrying device that makes it easier to transport several containers at a time.
A water carrier allows the transport of up to five containers of water at a time. | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

In my final year at school, I designed a sustainable fridge ‘powered’ by dirty water. The design is ideal for use in the developing world because it doesn’t require electricity and can be built using barrels, spare car parts and ordinary household materials. My design consists of two cylinders, one inside the other, between which a locally-sourced material such as sand or wool is packed tightly before being soaked with water. When the fridge is placed in a warm environment, the sun’s energy causes the outer part of the fridge to ’sweat.’ As the water evaporates, heat energy is transferred away from the inner cylinder, which therefore becomes cooler.

Mine isn’t the first refrigerator to use this principle, but it has a great advantage over the existing pot-in-pot cooler, in which the products stored would come into contact with water. This meant that clean drinking water would have to be used – essentially wasting water that should have been used by thirsty people – and because items in the cooler would become damp, it was only fit for fruit, vegetables and things in tight containers. In contrast, my fridge is powered by dirty water: drinking water is thus conserved and since my fridge is hygienic and dry, meat and medicine can be stored as well.

I refined my fridge during my time at the university, giving away the design plans in townships across southern Africa because I wanted as many people as possible to build their own fridges. Women in townships now produce fridges from scrap materials. This not only provides inexpensive and sustainable refrigeration where it wasn’t previously available, it also creates jobs, empowering women to support themselves and their families.

Some people question why I decided to open source my designs; giving away the plans for free. To me it felt like the right thing to do. My products would have never made such a difference if I had taken the selfish route to make as much money as possible. As an inventor, my dream was to see people benefitting from my product, and today I feel that I have achieved what I set out to do.

My creative thinking stemmed from my grandad, and I feel extremely lucky that I had the opportunity to experiment and explore. I realize that not everyone has a Grandad Pete. However, I don’t want this to be a barrier and I want to encourage as many young people as possible to realize their talents and their passions, and use them to make a difference. As a young person I was able to save and change lives with a school project. So, now I embrace a different kind of challenge: working with students, teachers and government to make sure other young people know that they can change the world – and helping to create the opportunities for them to do so.