A Yale School of Public Health student’s ambitious proposal to create upcycling makerspaces for recycling in developing nations with high waste mismanagement has won the Reimagine Challenge 2020 Global Competition.
Phyllis Mugadza ’22, a student in the five-year BS/MPH program and also a Yale College senior, said that her proposal is an effort to bring dignity and better working conditions to the same areas that have been continually exploited by world businesses in the global waste crisis. Mugadza is just one of 20 entrepreneurs worldwide to win the competition — and a $25,000 tuition scholarship funded by Schmidt Futures. The total award is $50,000. Yale will receive the other $25,000.
“I feel determined and motivated,” she said. “The proposal called for solutions that could enable a million people to work in concert to solve a global challenge, and I felt that my interdisciplinary education prepared me to tackle this challenge.”
Mugadza grew up in Zimbabwe. There, she said, she was excited by the craftiness and ingenuity of those around her. Her gardener could make a chandelier out of broken glass or a guitar from some construction-site leftovers. African artists like El Anatsui have already made careers out of repurposing refuse into magnificent sculptures. With her entrepreneurial spirit and engineering background, Mugadza realized that she could make a difference by harnessing this energy for good.
Her proposed makerspaces would be part of larger centers that provide foundational academic courses, supplies, tools and a source of income for grass-roots innovators to make crafts and sell them on the international market. Her proposal is structured around opening a center in Zimbabwe that can employ as many as 100 creators. She writes in her proposal that a similar framework can be used to open centers in Ghana and South Africa as a starting point.
“This population has been unfairly labeled as uneducated,” she explained. “We must prioritize collaboration with innovators who demonstrate low-levels of functional fixedness if our goal is to solve the crisis in the world as it stands. By embracing knowledge equity, we will start to value that there are other sources of novel ideas for the world to use other than the university.”
Mugadza concentrates in Health Care Management at YSPH. She credits much of her success to the training she has received through Tsai CITY’s programs, the public health education she’s received — and to support from InnovateHealth Yale, a YSPH program that promotes entrepreneurial solutions to health problems and provides seed funding to students to put their ideas into action.
Indeed, her makerspaces not only help combat global inequality, they also help to improve public health.
"In my proposal, I emphasize that plastic waste is causing a growing public health emergency globally. New research indicates that between 400,000 and 1 million people die each year in developing countries because of diseases related to mismanaged waste,” Mugadza said. “When I applied my YSPH training to my proposal, I was no longer just proposing a makerspace. I was promoting the creation of physical and social environments that promote good health for all.”
This project isn’t her only entrepreneurial endeavor. Mugadza has also combined her engineering education from Yale College with her public health training to develop a reusable menstrual product. Her ideas, she said, all center around promoting dignity and empowerment.
Mugadza is one of two Reimagine Challenge winners who are Yale students. The other, School of Management student Manas Punhani ’21, proposed the creation of a learning platform for migrant and refugee communities.