Meet the inspirational 2022 Zayed Sustainability Prize winners

Award has transformed the lives of more than 352 million people in 150 countries since 2008

Many of this year's Zayed Sustainability Prize winners were inspired by the people they had intended to benefit.

From community solar power-sharing systems to water filtration devices, the innovative designs that swayed the judges will help people in remote areas gain access to basic services that many take for granted.

The prize has transformed the lives of more than 352 million people in 150 countries since 2008.

SOLshare, the winner in the energy category, drew inspiration for its idea from those in rural Bangladesh who live “off the grid” and obtain their electricity from their own small-scale solar power systems in their homes.

Dr Sebastian Groh, founder and managing director of SOLshare, was intrigued by Bangladesh’s solar home systems programme, which is the largest in the world.

Thanks to the country’s abundant sunshine, the home battery storage systems were often full by 3pm, after which people sometimes took to throwing cables to their neighbours and sell the excess.

“I said, let’s work on that,” said Dr Groh, whose company developed a device that can share the surplus energy and help people earn money.

He didn't know it at the time, but in doing so, the company created the world’s first official peer-to-peer solar grid.

The company now has 110 grids and is moving into powering “local Teslas”, or three-wheeled tuk-tuks that are currently powered by lead acid batteries.

The batteries have a lifespan of only nine months and take a long time to recharge, often straining the grid when they are plugged in overnight, but SOLshare has invented a lithium battery that takes only a few hours to replenish.

It intends to use the $600,000 (Dh2.2 million) it will receive through the prize to build more charging stations for the tuk-tuk drivers.

But Dr Groh said the technologies could ultimately benefit everyone, not only those living off-grid in Bangladesh.

“If you imagine in the future that everyone has a solar panel on their roof, everyone has a battery. If you start exchanging with your neighbours, you don’t need the utilities any more. You have a community grid.” he said.

“This is something that has been pioneered in Bangladesh, but the concept is showing the way across the world.”

Water solution for hard-to-reach areas

The design of Wateroam, the winner in the water category, was also partly inspired by the people it is designed to help.

The device, which is portable and can be quickly sent to hard-to-reach locations, provides water filtering solutions for disaster-hit areas as well as rural communities using a pump-based system.

South-East Asia, where the company is based, is regularly hit by natural disasters, which inspired the founders to create the device.

Zayed Sustainability Prize Winner, David Pong Yan. Victor Besa / The National

“The initial solutions weren’t the best,” said David Pong, social entrepreneur and co-founder and chief executive of Wateroam.

“So, the prototype evolved. Eventually what worked was we saw somebody pumping his bicycle with a pump and thought this is a universally understood action.

“Everyone knows what to do. What if we incorporated that with water filter technology and be able to come up with a bicycle pump filter?”

They tested it in Cambodia where people immediately lined up with their buckets to use it.

The company will use their share of the $3 million prize fund to expand their production and distribution network.

Water and electricity from fresh air

Pupils were also able to enter the competition under the global schools category.

Each of the six winners will receive $100,000 to support their projects.

Zayed Sustainability Prize Winners. (L-R) Joseph Weizsaecker and Merrick Richers. Victor Besa / The National

Eastern Mediterranean International School in Israel, selected as the best in the Middle East and North Africa region, designed a project to collect water and electricity from the air.

“The machine produces water and electricity literally out of thin air,” said Joseph Weizsaecker, 17.

It works by taking the moisture out of the air and condensing it into clean drinking water.

“In doing so, it attracts heat and this heat can be used to power a generator,” said Merrick Richers, 18.

“We found that it was actually possible to take this electricity and power the machine itself. So, it can be put into any location on earth and still function perfectly without any infrastructure.”

The pupils say they will use the money to produce a prototype.

They have built each of the systems individually and know they work but they now need to assemble them.

“We know, individually, every single component works. And in theory, they should be able to be joined together,” said Mr Weizsaecker.

The prize money will be used to bring the project to investors so that the machines can be made available commercially at a low cost.

“All the time, we have been waiting for the funds to do it,” added Mr Richers.

Updated: January 19, 2022, 8:51 AM
EDITOR'S PICKS