Fighting drought with orange peel

16-year-old Kiara Nirghin has a solution for southern Africa’s food shortage. All of southern Africa has been plagued by a vicious cycle of drought and famine. Last year, El Niño brought hot, dry air to southern Africa, creating the conditions for the driest start to the growing season in 35 years—the region had the least annual rainfall it’s had since 1904.

As a result, crop production has declined severely. This year, South Africa produced only 7.2 million tons of maize, down 28% from last year’s 9 million tons. Eight of the nine provinces in the country are in a state of disaster.

Nirghin found the weapon to battle the never-ending drought right in her kitchen. The Google science fair winner developed a cheap super-absorbent material to help soil retain water. Nirghin’s cheaper solution? Orange peel.

The aspiring agricultural scientist and molecular gastronomist noticed that pectin, a gelling agent used in jams, can be extracted from the peels of citrus fruits to make a similarly absorbent natural polymer. Using orange skin as the main element, and adding some lemon juice and avocado crust to the mix, Nirgin created a low-cost, biodegradable alternative that can store rainwater in the soil.