Giving vision to 'blind', helping people in war zones: Meet change-makers who won UAE's Zayed Sustainability Prize

The innovators and humanitarians who received the award share how the recognition will empower them and help touch more lives


Ashwani Kumar

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Photos by Ashwani Kumar
Photos by Ashwani Kumar

Published: Tue 17 Jan 2023, 3:14 PM

Last updated: Tue 17 Jan 2023, 3:35 PM

From projects to help war-hit people in Iraq to the bunch of volunteers performing eye surgeries for indigenous communities in Amazon forest, the ideas and initiatives of this year's Zayed Sustainability Prize winners stand to make a huge difference in countless lives.

The President, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, presented the prestigious award to the 10 winners. Those who were selected for the categories of health, food, energy, and water received $600,000 each, while global high schools from six regions of the world got $100,000 each.

The inspiring bunch of change-makers spoke to Khaleej Times on how the prize will empower them.

Giving vision to the 'blind'

Ricardo Affonso Ferreira
Ricardo Affonso Ferreira

A nonprofit organisation from Brazil has been providing specialised medical and surgical care for indigenous communities geographically isolated within the Amazon. It has helped thousands of people through its mobile hospital complex.

“Getting this prize is going to be very good for us. Now, we will have more partners in helping us in what we do, which is to take care of affected people in those forests. This will help give new life to people,” said Dr Ricardo Affonso Ferreira, who co-founded Expedicionarios da Saude (EDS).

During six expeditions from 2015 to 2022, they performed more than 1,900 procedures, mostly cataract surgeries that improve vision.

“In the last expedition, we did more than 400 surgeries in a week. Several people there are blind and the next day after the surgery they can see, it’s a beautiful feeling. And the prize will be able to help a lot of people, the indigenous communities, and make this world a better one.”

Turning insects into high-value ingredients

Ynsect is an SME from France producing insect protein and natural insect fertilisers. Europe’s first-of-its-kind insect factory is equipped with innovative vertical farming and integrated bio-refining setup.

Ynsect processes two insect species (molitor and buffalo mealworms) into high-end, high-value ingredients for the entire food chain—plants, fish, farmed animals, pets, and humans.

The company is currently building a new factory in France and operates two other sites in France and the Netherlands.

By 2025, Ynsect will be able to produce more than 1,500 tonnes of protein per month. In the past five years, Ynsect has improved the lives of 30 million people by delivering sustainable, natural, premium nutrition products for fish farming (as an alternative fish feed to meet aquaculture’s food supply needs) and human nutrition. The demo plant currently operated by the company produces 30 tonnes of protein production per month.

Powering up refugee camps

NeuroTech, an SME from Jordan, develops Al-based algorithms with a blockchain-based transaction system to bring reliable energy access to refugee camps.

The company ensures fairer distribution of energy in refugee camps and reduced energy bills for aid agencies. This was achieved by separating high-priority loads – such as medical devices and lighting – from low-priority loads, which include air-conditioning and electric heaters.

Heba Asa’d, founder of NeuroTech, said winning the prize enables her company to help even more people by funding the development of an interactive application encouraging both refugees and local communities to be more energy-efficient.

“It helps us contribute to a larger number of beneficiaries by launching new products to solve the various challenges faced by those most in need.”

Providing clean water to disaster-prone areas

The Local Environment Development and Agricultural Research Society (Ledars), a nonprofit organisation from Bangladesh, integrated water resource management models to solve water scarcity issues in disaster-prone areas where water becomes unusable due to salinity and flooding.

Their combination of technologies help transforms communities in Bangladesh, so people can have access to safe drinking water and climate-smart livelihoods.

With the support of Ledars, 5,250 bio-sands-filters, 65 pond-sand-filters, 185 rainwater harvesting systems, and 69 protective ponds were installed in communities in Bangladesh, supporting cultivation of paddies and vegetables throughout the year on lands that were previously barren. Ledars initiatives created access to safe drinking water for at least 15,881 families. As a result of this solution, more than 12 million gallons of water have been saved.

Global high schools

The Americas

>> Fundacion Bios Terrae - ICAM Ubate, Colombia

Students proposed a ‘Community Air Quality Programme’ to address the air pollution crises and to improve the health of 200,000 people living in Ubate.

Two girl students highlighted how their school is trying to raise awareness among civil society, and now the prize has given wings to their programme.

“Thanks to the prize, we are going to make our idea into reality. Our priority is to clean the air as everyone is breathing in polluted air from the mines. Even babies are born with respiratory problems,” said Linda Bernal, a student.

“We are going to instal sensors in community areas to know where the air quality is bad and people must avoid staying there. We are also talking to the mining companies,” said Sandy Vargas, another student.

“We will start working with radio stations and use social media, and engage our policy makers on how to reduce air pollution,” she added.

Europe and Central Asia

>> Romain-Rolland Gymnasium from Germany

Students proposed to build a lighthouse powered by solar energy, an electrolysis-based fuel cell, and run workshops and events from inside the solar lighthouse. They created a space in which students can learn and experience for themselves what it means to develop sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel energy.

“We will be able to further develop our project. We want to expand this project to other schools. We want to get them into the process,” said Grade 12 students Sarah Sommer and Mark Kaplunow, who are here with their teacher Angela Köhler-Krützfeldt. “We need many more students to help us.”

Middle East and North Africa

>> Gifted Students School, Iraq

Students proposed a project to develop a hydroponic greenhouse in which food can be grown all year long. The greenhouse would be controlled by cellulosic cooling cells supplied with water from a sustainable source (groundwater) and air vacuums, as well as temperature controllers supplied with electricity through solar panels.

“We have a prototype. The prize will help to build a bigger project. It will help to support the poor families. After the war, the communities have become very poor. So, will distribute the food products to those people. This will help to change lives. This will spread a message that even those who suffer from crisis can succeed in their lives,” Iraqi students Abdulrahman Neshat and Mohammed Ali, both 16-year-olds, said.

Sub-Saharan Africa

>> UWC East Africa - Arusha Campus, Tanzania

Students want to reduce the prevalence of dental and skeletal fluorosis by tackling their community’s drinking water issue. About 50 per cent of spring water sources in Arusha possess fluoride concentrations above WHO’s permissible levels.

Sehra Aggarwal, a Tanzanian, noted that the quality of water for many communities is sub-par and causes detrimental health issues.

“The main source is groundwater and it is not filtered properly. As a Tanzanian, I am grateful for winning this prize. It presents an opportunity to give people access to clean water. It’s their human right,” Sehra, flanked by Lim Yue Kin and Roos Postema, said.

South Asia

>> Dhaka Residential Model College, Bangladesh

Students proposed a project to produce healthy crop plants in a faster time by shortening the seed germination period, increasing germination rates, and enhancing seedling growth using soil-dwelling microorganisms.

The project aims to supply microorganism-based seed and soil treatment chemicals, microbial biofertilizers and biopesticides to more than 2,000 farms and reduce the information gap of Bangladeshi farmers through rural campaigns and consulting services.

Talha Zubair, Grade 12, and Ahnaf Ilman, Grade 10, noted that winning the prize money has provided an amazing opportunity.

“We spoke to many investors but because of our lack of experience they didn’t trust us. Winning this Prize and the money gives us a huge financial security to hope for ambitious projects without needing to think about the struggles of finance,” said Zubair, who was thrilled to have received the prize from Sheikh Mohamed.

“He told me that we have done a good job. It was exciting meeting him.”

East Asia and Pacific

>> Kamil Muslim College, Fiji

It's fourth-time lucky for the school from Fiji. The students proposed a project to address the effects of climate change that have affected their community and the world by providing 100 per cent solar energy to the school, collecting rainwater from a rain harvesting system, generating biogas energy for cooking in the school canteen, and providing food for students who cannot afford lunch.

“We can now implement the project. It will help the school in reducing electricity and water bills. This project can bring the bill to zero. And the money saved can be used to help the poor and needy students,” said teacher Rinal Rinay Prasad who is in Abu Dhabi with his Year 13 students Aqeelah Laylaa Ali and Nawaila Nafisha Ali (Year 13).

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