Inspired by a talk at the Aga Khan Academy, Deuniciah Syomiti Masa – a student from a rural community near Mombasa, Kenya – announced in the spirit of female scientists throughout history, “the next female scientist is going to be from Africa. She is going to be from Kenya. And she is going to be me!”

The talk that inspired her, by Dr. Evelyn Gitau, a researcher at Kenya Medical Research Institute and a Next Einstein Forum Fellow, ignited Deuniciah’s passion for science.

Deuniciah and 45 of her fellow students at Jomvu Girls High School are part of a science club at their school where girls have a platform for making positive change. The girls put their heads together in the school’s science lab to create a multi-purpose detergent and disinfectant that their families needed.

Deuniciah’s group is participating in a project called Educating Girls in Science (EGIS), an initiative sponsored by Intel and the Aga Khan Foundation USA. The program empowers girls to apply science-based learning in their lives outside the classroom to address critical needs in their communities. Such practical application of theoretical concepts from class leads to improved learning of the sciences, which is a main objective of EGIS. It aims to raise awareness of science as a life skill, and increase the number of girls pursuing science.

The girls decided to pursue this project because they observed that the detergent sold at the local market was expensive and incompatible with the salty water used in the Jomvu community. Their analysis of the poverty and hygiene needs within their community pushed them to create a high quality product that is effective and affordable for the people of Jomvu.

As with any project, the one that Deuniciah and her group members pursued required commitment. Their resolve and scientific knowledge was tested by various challenges. Their first challenge was scientific in nature. The chemical reaction involved in the making of the detergent was taking too much time. After identifying this problem, they used a catalyst to speed up the reaction, which reduced the reaction time by half.

Their second challenge was the lack of resources available to them. The girls did not have enough plastic bottles to store the detergent and disinfectant. However, they made use of their critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaborative skills to find a solution. Deuniciah and her group pooled their resources to collect and recycle bottles from their community.

Despite the challenges the girls faced, their project reaped benefit and had a significant impact in their community. The girls living in the Jomvu Girls High School dormitory often have to wait several days for their parents to replenish their supply of soap. Having a multi-purpose detergent available that can be used for both cleaning and washing purposes solves the girls’ problem of limited supplies of soap.

In addition to the detergent and disinfectant being a welcome commodity in the girls’ dorm, its success outside the school is even more impressive. The local Constituencies Development Fund hospital has purchased the disinfectant from the girls. In hospital wards where cleanliness and hygiene is absolutely crucial, the use of the Jomvu girls’ disinfectant on a large scale is a proud achievement for their project.

They took their success a step further by taking the initiative to request the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), a government body that regulates and assesses the quality of products, to evaluate their detergent and disinfectant. KEBS accepted the proposal and is currently conducting the review.

Without doubt, these girls have exceeded expectations by producing a product on their own that is not only helping their community but also ringing bells on a national level. Their real achievement, however, lies in the transformation of their attitudes towards science, and the rise in their self-confidence.

It is initiatives such as the Next Einstein Forum fellowship and the Educating Girls in Science project that cultivate local talent, empower girls to pursue otherwise male-dominated fields like science, and play an important role in inspiring budding innovators from Africa.

“Don’t just sit in class and listen to pass exams. Apply the science! If you learn about wires properly, then you can make your own wiring,” said Monicah Abulitsa, a Form 2 student who also participated in the EGIS project. When asked about her role model, Monicah confidently said, ”I don’t have one. I want to be my own hero!”

Written by Haifa Badi-Uz-Zaman, Communications Specialist, Aga Khan Academy – Mombasa