An urge to feed the hungry and fight malnutrition has landed the young Larissa Uwase of Rwanda the accolade of being named one of the five top female innovators in Africa.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) hailed Uwase, one of four under 25s to start the Rwandan innovation company, the Carl Group, as Africa’s top agricultural economist (‘agronomist’). The acknowledgment at the 2016 WEF Africa Conference was made in recognition of her work to develop new products – including spaghetti – from a local staple crop, the sweet potato.
Content Cows UK content director Piet van Niekerk wrote for b.inspired magazine, an Ink Global inflight magazine published on behalf of Brussels Airlines, that ironically Uwase never studied food sciences. Instead she received her degree from the University of Rwanda’s School of Science and Technology in quantity surveying. How, he asked her, is it that a construction sciences major won an award as food innovator?
“My earliest recollection is of being an elder sibling working in the kitchen helping to feed brothers and sisters. It awakened in me an urge to feed the hungry and fight malnutrition on a much larger scale. As early as 2011, as a young school leaver, I started self-research into agriculture and food sciences to find ways to add nutritional value to sweet potatoes, a crop my family planted for survival.”
Her interest in sweet potatoes was further stimulated because so many Rwandan women planted it for subsistence but could not sell their excess produce. “I set out to change that by trying to find ways to add value to it and use it to bake bread, cakes and doughnuts.”
By 2014 Uwase was ready to put years of research and theory into practice. Along with university friends she formed the CARL Group, a venture aimed at innovation in agriculture, environment and architecture. With no startup capital but human spirit, skills and knowledge, they started CARL Sweet Food, an agribusiness that would buy sweet potatoes from local subsistence farmers to process into various flour gradients for bake bread and cakes to be sold in shops.
The initial success motivated Uwase to find more potential products from sweet potatoes, developing a range of spaghettis and biscuits. “The spaghetti production is still under development. We did the sample products in collaboration with the University of Rwanda. At the moment we are looking for funds to start production and put it on the market. The next challenge will be to produce gluten-free products.”
She says it was a huge challenge to start their business. “We come from simple families, unable to afford funding these projects. We used networking and hard work to build our business. That’s why we also believe that the spaghetti industry will be working soon.”