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At Clinton Global Initiative University, VCU math major’s team wins coding competition for app that curbs food waste

Tatenda Ndambakuwa, a senior in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, was part o...
Tatenda Ndambakuwa, a senior in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, was part of a team that won the CGI U codeathon for building an app that reduces food waste.
Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

A Virginia Commonwealth University student was part of a team that won the Clinton Foundation Codeathon over the weekend after building a mobile app that helps cut food waste at the individual or household level.

Tatenda Ndambakuwa, a senior in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was a member of the five-person team at the Clinton Global Initiative University at Northeastern University that created the app Wi$er as part of the competition’s challenge to create digital prototypes that would improve or facilitate energy efficiency in metropolitan cities.

“Our prototype works not only to ensure energy efficiency at the production level, but also cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions,” Ndambakuwa said. “If we don’t buy more than what we eat, then producers will spend less energy making the [food]. When food is wasted, a lot of energy would have gone into it, from trucking to refrigeration and more. [And that is] something of importance today with global warming, as exhibited by the current series of natural disasters.”

Wi$er reduces food waste, she said, by tracking what a user buys at a grocery store and then suggesting recipes that require the ingredients before they expire.

“If you don’t like the recipe, you dislike it and a new one pops up,” she said. “This helps us create a ‘taste profile.’ [With] this taste profile, you can look for people with similar food interests to you and share recipes, making it a fun, engaging way to reduce food waste.”

The app also generates a “waste profile” that tracks what a person bought at the grocery store and didn’t use.

“We also create for you a curated shopping list when you go shopping,” she said. “Say you threw away two tomatoes last week, we tell you, ‘What about buying two less tomatoes this week?’ Over time we can advise you on what to buy based on your tastes, recipes and waste profile.”

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Beyond food waste at the individual or household level, Ndambakuwa said, the app is meant to have a far bigger impact on the environment, the food production system and the problem of hunger.

“There are 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emitted from landfills filled with food waste. That is one-third the amount of greenhouse gas released from fossil fuels,” she said. “One hundred and sixty-five billion dollars is wasted in food waste every year in the U.S. and that is 10 times the GDP of Zimbabwe, my home country. I strongly feel we can do better for our environment and we can share resources. There is no need for anyone to be hungry in the U.S., as exhibited by how much food is wasted.”

Ndambakuwa was one of eight VCU students and alumni who attended the Clinton Global Initiative University, marking the highest number of VCU students and grads to ever attend the annual meeting where students, university representatives, topic experts and celebrities gather to discuss and develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges.

Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the Arts, Business, Engineering and College of Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship, attended CGI U and said VCU’s contingent was among the most talked about at the conference.

VCU sent its biggest contingent of students and alumni to the Clinton Global Initiative University, which brings together innovative students from around the world to work on some of the most important global challenges.
VCU sent its biggest contingent of students and alumni to the Clinton Global Initiative University, which brings together innovative students from around the world to work on some of the most important global challenges.

“In the opening plenary, Chelsea Clinton used VCU student Joel Zeballos’s commitment to action as an example of an exemplary attendee and shared the full scope of his commitment and referenced VCU three times during the process,” he said. “Sixto Cancel, a former VCU student and CGI U attendee, was recognized as a CGI U Honor Roll member and spoke during the afternoon plenary session on Saturday. He also had a private meeting with Chelsea Clinton. Tatenda was recognized by Chelsea Clinton during the closing plenary session for her contributions to the Wi$er codeathon team. Finally, Jerome Dixon presented at the culminating poster presentation and dinner on Saturday.”

When Chelsea Clinton announced that the Wi$er team, which also included students from Arizona State University, Loyola Marymount University, Northeastern University and Grinnell College, had won the codeathon, Ndambakuwa said, she jumped out of her seat.

“I was obviously crossing fingers that we would be the winning team but other teams also had good ideas. My team had obviously put their best into it,” she said. “I was excited especially because food waste is an issue near and dear to my heart. When I interned at the USDA, I worked on food waste podcasts in addition to my other responsibilities.”

I was excited especially because food waste is an issue near and dear to my heart.

Winning the codeathon, Westlake said, is an incredible achievement.

“[It] is particularly impressive because students are invited to participate from all over the world,” he said. “The pool of contenders in this event is comprised of some of the world’s most innovative students, and for Tatenda to be on the winning team recognizes her exceptional talent as well as the caliber of innovation present at VCU.”

Wi$er is not the first app Ndambakuwa has worked on that tackles issues related to food. She is co-founder of a startup called Shiri that is developing a mobile application to allow African farmers to upload data about their farm’s livestock and crop management, seed and feed access, milk production analysis, cattle pricing and other data points. The app will allow for real-time analyses of Africa’s food production system, thereby allowing for greater efficacies and reducing the likelihood of food shortages and famine.

While winning the codeathon was a highlight of CGI U, Ndambakuwa said, the best part of the conference was meeting and working with innovative people from across the world on issues of global importance.

“So many students are working on creating a better world and hearing their commitments was an incredible experience,” she said. “Getting to know them and exchange contact details was fun. It’s always amazing making new friends.”

 

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