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VCU student Tatenda Ndambakuwa selected as a potential leader in the future of food security

Tatenda Ndambakuwa, a senior in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the Coll...
Tatenda Ndambakuwa, a senior in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has a long list of projects at the intersection of food security and technology. (Photo by Allen Jones)

A Virginia Commonwealth University student is one of only 27 students from around the world selected as part of the Next Generation Delegation that will attend the Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, D.C.

Tatenda Ndambakuwa, a senior in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is part of a select group of students studying agricultural development, social entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship, and other food security related disciplines. She was selected to attend the symposium from an applicant pool of more than 800 students attending 364 universities in nearly 90 countries. As a member of the delegation, she will attend the conference, participate in symposium discussions and interact with business and policy leaders, civil society, and social entrepreneurs working on agriculture, food and nutrition issues.

The symposium by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs will be held March 21-22 and will focus on “youth livelihoods.” According to organizers, Africa’s population will double by 2050, with 1 billion projected to be under the age of 18. The event will bring together global leaders, innovators, disruptors and trailblazers shaping the future of food and agriculture to discuss ways to harness the potential of this demographic to secure economic growth and stability.

A native of Zimbabwe, Ndambakuwa experienced the country’s food crisis in 2008 that left her and millions of others facing starvation. At VCU, she has undertaken a long list of projects at the intersection of food, agriculture and technology, often with an eye toward preventing such famines in the future.

“After living through the 2008 food shortages of historic proportions and famine in Zimbabwe, long before I was exposed to the concept of data science, I wondered from a mathematical perspective how governments and people could not foresee an impending crisis. I resolved to work on food security,” Ndambakuwa wrote in her application to the symposium. “Since the 2008 famine, I have often wondered, ‘How do societies build effective pathways to feed their people?’ Can predictive data analysis and interactive data sharing perhaps circumvent the need for post-famine relief? Can we empower farmers to maximize harvests, track data and realize when a famine is about to hit? It is my ‘crazy idea,’ and my most meaningful commitment, to see hunger eradicated in my lifetime. I want to use computational and mathematical models to help find hunger solutions.”

Last October, she was part of a five-person team that won the Clinton Foundation Codeathon for building a prototype mobile app called Wi$er that helps cut food waste at the individual or household level. Ndambakuwa was one of eight VCU students who attended the Clinton Global Initiative University in the fall.

It is my ‘crazy idea,’ and my most meaningful commitment, to see hunger eradicated in my lifetime.

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.

Ndambakuwa also has written a children’s book, “Ta’s Garden,” about food waste and gardening. She is currently seeking an illustrator, and is working on it through the VCU da Vinci Center’s pre-accelerator program, VCU Pre-X, that aims to identify and support individuals, teams and ideas through the early stages of formation and business development.

In the summer of 2015, Ndambakuwa interned at the U.S. Department of Agriculture where she co-produced podcasts on “The Statistics of Food Waste in America,” conducting interviews with advocates, food recovery programs, farmers and others. She also attended congressional hearings on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, wrote summaries based on data to include assessments, and recommendations of the hearings. In addition, she analyzed data for child feeding programs from different countries in global and African contexts. She also reviewed and compiled worldwide data, summaries and questionnaire responses on nutrition and food security for the USDA’s senior global nutritionist.

Ndambakuwa also has started a mentorship program for high school students in Mbare, Zimbabwe, to help them learn digital literacy, career and life skills.

“I am happy that VCU offers tremendous support, community and opportunity to all its students,” she said. “All the knowledge I have gained in the classroom and outside has enabled me to partake in all these endeavors and become an adept leader for tomorrow.”