Nutritional seaweed kit wins Shell Ideas360 Audience Choice Award

[Singapore] Seaweed: nautical nuisance or necessary nutritional supplement? The latter, it seems. Team REPiphany from Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) beat almost 1,000 entries from 140 countries to win the audience choice award at Shell Ideas360, a global innovation competition, for a kit that processes seaweed into a powder supplement.

Developed by NTU students Matthew James, Nur Syazana Puteri Binte Asmuni and Ang Wei Loong, the NutriSea kit converts Sargassum seaweed, which is currently choking coastlines around the world, into a nutrition-dense powder. It is hoped that NutriSea will help alleviate ‘hidden hunger’ in communities that do not have access to essential micronutrients such as calcium and iron.

Below, James shares with Asian Scientist Magazine more about the product and the team’s plans to launch a test pilot for it in Indonesia.

Why did you choose malnutrition as the subject of your project?

We are targeting a form of malnutrition known as hidden hunger, which occurs when communities do not have access to the essential micronutrients they need. Their diets mainly consist of staples such as rice, corn and bread.

Although often neglected, hidden hunger negatively impacts health and societal development, and ultimately, economic well-being. In fact, over a third of the world’s population suffers from hidden hunger, mostly in developing countries. Iron and zinc deficiencies affect two billion people worldwide and cause 800,000 child deaths annually.

However, hidden hunger is not a problem as jarring or conspicuous as other forms of malnutrition, such as famine. Hence, this alarming problem has not received the attention that it deserves.

How did the idea for NutriSea come about?

NutriSea is truly a confluence of ideas. It began with Syazana and I focusing on solving the issue of hidden hunger after closely interacting with a few communities suffering from it.

After analyzing existing attempts to tackle this issue, we found that nutrition-specific interventions were essential but we faced a roadblock in trying to seek a suitable supplement that is both low-cost and highly accessible. As fate may have it, we met Wei Loong, who spoke passionately about how the overgrowth of Sargassum seaweed is polluting coastlines around the world, destroying local ecosystems while affecting the livelihood of the locals. He wanted to do something about it, but he also did not know where to start.

Suddenly, we had an epiphany. Why not put these two problems together to provide a synergistic solution for both? And that was how the idea of NutriSea was born.

Sargassum seaweed nutrisea

How does NutriSea convert seaweed into nutritional supplements?

We plan to provide each coastal community with a NutriSea kit so that they may process this ecological waste into a nutritious food supplement in their own backyard. Each kit can produce 6 kg of seaweed powder a day, which can serve 600 individuals—10 g of seaweed powder added to rice or soup is enough for each person meet their daily essential micronutrient requirements.

The NutriSea kit is designed to be simple to use, requiring minimal maintenance and no external power sources. The general idea is to make the process as simple and intuitive as possible.

Each kit consists of 12 multi-purpose cages and a solar dehydrator. The multi-purpose cages allow users to collect, wash and grind the seaweed, all in one. The solar dehydrator uses the greenhouse effect to dry the seaweed, preparing it for grinding. Upon reaching an optimal temperature of 60°C, which will kill pathogens in the seaweed, the heat indicator will turn green, showing that the dried seaweed is now safe for consumption. Air vents use convective airflow to dry the seaweed in less than ten hours. The final step uses a corrugated grater at the base of the cage to produce seaweed powder.

Which compounds in Sargassum seaweed are nutritionally beneficial?

There are plenty of essential micronutrients in Sargassum seaweed powder. For example, 10 g of seaweed, our recommended amount per day, contains:

  • 700 mg of calcium (daily requirement: 1000 mg)
  • 10.8 mg of zinc (daily requirement: 8-11 mg)
  • 34.1 mg of iron (daily requirement: 8-18 mg)

The amount of nutrients found in 10 g of seaweed powder is below the tolerable upper intake level.

What are some of the challenges that you foresee in NutriSea’s future?

Moving forward, we believe that we will face challenges in encouraging the uptake of seaweed powder among the communities. After all, Sargassum seaweed is currently perceived as a waste, instead of the treasure trove of nutrients that it really is. We plan to work hand in hand with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to educate communities on the benefits of consuming the seaweed.

Furthermore, at only 10 g, the amount of seaweed powder that needs to be added to rice or soup is minimal and will not alter the taste, color, texture or smell of food. Thus, food supplemented with seaweed powder will still be highly palatable.

What were some preliminary ideas that you as a team had discussed before finally settling on NutriSea?

We were quick to converge on the idea of using Sargassum seaweed as the raw ingredient for our nutrient supplement. However, we spent a lot of time working on the processing method for the seaweed. One of the earlier iterations of the idea was simply to collect the seaweed from the shoreline and then mass-manufacture it into nutrient supplements.

However, we soon realized that Sargassum seaweed powder has great commercial value as a raw ingredient for cosmetics, fertilizers and pharmaceutical products. That was the critical moment when we pivoted the idea to further engage the community in this process.

We decided to create a processing kit that allows communities to process the seaweed into powder on their own. The excess seaweed powder produced can then be sold to manufacturers to generate a supplementary income. By doing so, we not only address the issues surrounding hidden hunger, but also simultaneously help to alleviate poverty faced by these communities.

Now that the competition is over, what are your plans for NutriSea?

The competition was a great opportunity for us to gain exposure for our project. We met many amazing and inspiring figures, including Dame Mary Archer, chair of the National Science Museum in London, who provided us with extraordinary insight and advice. We are currently in the process of improving our project based on the insights we gained from the competition.

We hope to launch a test pilot in Indonesia, a country affected by both hidden hunger and Sargassum overgrowth. We further shortlisted 21 locations within Indonesia as potential launch pads for our pilot testing. In fact, we are currently in active discussion with an NGO based in Indonesia that is dedicated to distributing low-cost technologies to developing nations. We hope to modify our strategy based on the lessons learnt in the pilot testing phase, before proceeding to other locations.

 

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