A young innovator dedicated to helping Africa rise

He has introduced stacked crop beds and solar-powered water pumps to Zimbabwean villages and campaigned to change perceptions of Africa. His next goal is to bring solar power to schools.

The seed was planted shortly after Ngoni Mugwisi arrived at Arizona State University in the United States for his freshman year. Climbing atop his bunk bed, a contraption he had never encountered before, Mugwisi wondered whether such a structure could help farmers increase crop yields in his native Zimbabwe.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

He initially dismissed the idea as "crazy". Others on campus took it seriously. They also saw in Mugwisi an engineer's ingenuity, a humanitarian's vision of the world as a better place, and clear signs of a leader in the making.

"The first day he came into class you could tell he was planning to do some big things," says Scott Shrake, an engineering professor to whom Mugwisi described his idea. As Mugwisi, 23, prepares to graduate in the spring, Shrake says, "I'm looking forward to seeing what he does for the rest of his career."

Mugwisi's first stop after Arizona State will be Oxford University in the United Kingdom, where, as a Rhodes Scholar, he will pursue a masters in engineering with a focus on energy systems. Eventually he intends to return to Zimbabwe, a complex and beautiful country that boasts a colourful history and talented people who could achieve great things if they had some of the opportunities he has had.

The eldest of six children, Mugwisi grew up in Gweru, a city of about 90,000, and as a child moved from house to house with his mother and siblings until urban living got too expensive. When his mother decided to relocate to a rural village, an uncle who recognised young Ngoni's promise asked that he remain in Gweru, where the schools were better.

His teachers at Mpumelelo Primary School saw his talent, too. In seventh grade, he was named 'head boy', a designation that is something akin to a class president and role model. From that perch, Mugwisi began to see how leaders influence ideas, and to participate in decision-making. He also recognised, he says, "that I had the potential to lead".

Soon enough, he was tapped by the United States Achievers Program, a non-profit organisation that helps connect low-income, high-achieving students in Zimbabwe with opportunities and resources. Through that affiliation, Mugwisi prepared for the SAT exams, learned to navigate the US admissions process and eventually applied to Arizona State University. (A MasterCard Foundation Scholarship funds his undergraduate schooling.)

Founder of Africa Rises

Once on campus, Mugwisi became a problem-solver. In short order, he founded Africa Rises, a student group that celebrates African culture. Inspired by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who warns of "the danger of a single story" in a widely circulated 2009 TED talk, Mugwisi saw Africa Rises as an opportunity to share the richness and diversity of his homeland, and to challenge stereotypes and assumptions about Africa and Africans.

One of his proudest initiatives has been "Africa Is...", a campaign that invited students to fill in the last part of the sentence. Photos on the Africa Rises Facebook page show student after student holding up signs that fill in the blank: Africa is... Photogenic. Africa is... The Future. Africa is... Big. Africa is... Me. Today, Mugwisi says, Africa Rises is on its third generation of leaders and he feels confident that its future is strong.

As for his engineering studies, Mugwisi's bunk-bed idea led him to develop what eventually became known as the Stair Gardens Project. Encouraged by Shrake, he proposed it to ASU's Engineering Projects in Community Service, a social entrepreneurship programme that helps teams of students design, build and implement their ideas for solving community problems.

The beauty of the project may be its simplicity. By stacking beds of crops one atop another, farmers can expand food production even in small roadside patches of land. By watering from the top and allowing it to trickle down, they can save labour and conserve water, a very precious resource. Moreover, the farmers can build the beds with local materials.

The idea has earned support in the form of financing and mentoring from a number of non-profit organisations, including the Clinton Global Initiative University and the Resolution Project, both of which work with young leaders who have innovative ideas that exemplify the spirit of social responsibility.

After he introduced his gardening idea to villagers in Zimbabwe, Mugwisi also founded Solar Water Solutions, a non-profit venture, designed to address a more fundamental need: access to water. The village's communal well had to be hand-pumped, a labour-intensive and energy-draining task not only for farmers but for the wider community. Now, with his help, solar-powered water pump technology has replaced manual pumping in the village of Zhombe. Mugwisi was there to help with installation.

Mugwisi's undergraduate journey is not uncommon for beginning engineers, Shrake says.

"Oftentimes, when students come up with their first ideas, they end up identifying a more pressing problem," he says.

Grit and persistence

Less typical is how Mugwisi has responded. "A lot of people find it very difficult to stick with things when they run into roadblocks," Shrake says. "But certain students come in and you know they have the grit and the persistence. There's really no such thing as an 'aha' moment, or a 'eureka' moment. They all come from persistence."

Already, Mugwisi is looking ahead to how solar panels could be installed in rural schools so that students could use computers, or how a solar-powered hospital generator system could provide more lighting.

As a child, Mugwisi had faced frequent power cuts, a problem for many families both in Gweru and in rural areas where no lights are available. Students with homework can address it with candles – if they have candles. The other option is to complete school assignments before the sun goes down.

Mugwisi was reminded of that routine when he returned to Zimbabwe one summer and watched his younger brother doing exactly that.

It got him thinking, he says, "about how that's affecting education for students, and limits the potential for many people".

When he applied to Arizona State University, "I had an idea for what I want to do with my education, to accomplish. But I can tell you that my dreams were not big enough," he says. "What motivates me is knowing that we can have bigger expectations for my country – for Zimbabwe and also for Africa."