United Nations recognizes Kiribati alumni's project as a solution to issues facing the Pacific

Written by: 
Emmalee Smith

BYU-Hawaii graduate Eritai Kateibwi was titled as one of the first Young Champions of the Earth by the United Nations in December 2017 for introducing a hydroponics system to Kiribati that provides fresh food, nutrients, and self-reliance to his home country.

“It is simple enough that an 8 year old can understand it and do it themselves,” explained Kateibwi in an email. The finance grad from Kiribati said the system requires a small amount of space, can be grown at any location, is less time consuming and bears more fruit per root.

The United Nations released a 2:54 second video on its YouTube channel about Kateibwi’s journey, the problems his country faces, and how the hydroponics system helps his people overcome.

His project, called Te Maeu, which means life, is a hydroponics system that allows the successful growth of plants in 30 days using 10 percent of the water it would normally take. He introduced the system to his home island to resolve lack of land, increasing sea levels, king tides, and irregular rain, which makes it difficult for the people to grow their own food. According to the U.N., because of these problems, people in Kiribati rely on imported processed foods that lack nutrients and give rise to problems such as diabetes, unhealthy children, and a garbage problem due to packaging.

According to the U.N., Kateibwi and five other representatives were selected from more than 600 applicants from six different regions: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, and West Asia. The winners received $15,000 to help start off and implement their ideas, and they also attended the U.N. Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya in December 2017.

Kateibwi said he was shocked when he made it as a finalist. He said, “I knew I worked hard and my idea was great, but I was competing against other people in the world. I was dreaming even more when I left for Africa. … I just didn’t expect it at all. Even when I was on the airplane I kept saying to myself, ‘Am I really going to Africa?’”

During the assembly in Kenya, Kateibwi said he received two days of intensive entrepreneurship training designed to help the young champions execute their business plans. He met the president of Kenya, president of the U.N. General Assembly, ambassadors from all over the world, as well as singer Ellie Goulding, and actress Dia Mirza who were hosts at the gala diner in Nairobi. Kateibwi will participate in a one-week entrepreneurship course in Europe this year as well as the U.N. General Assembly in New York this September, which is also part of the Young Champions of the Earth award, according to the U.N.

According to the U.N., the United Nations Environmental Program launched the Young Champions of the Earth for the first time in 2017. The website states, “This new, young competition recognizes the importance of supporting the innovation of the world’s newer generation to find lasting environmental solutions to the issues increasingly affecting them.”

Learning at BYUH

Taylor Steele, the production and broadcast manager at BYUH, visited Kiribati this past summer to help Kateibwi with Te Maeu. Steele said the people in Kiribati rely so heavily on imported foods that it’s scary to think what would happen if they were cut off from the supply. “People are excited about this new system because it helps them become self-reliant. It’s easy, it produces healthy food, and is a new way for them to earn some income,” Steele said.

Kateibwi wrote in the email, “BYUH is a great and the right place to be. We are surrounded by hundreds of mature people (staff, professors, volunteers, couple missionaries, local entrepreneurs, etc.) on campus. I know for sure that these wonderful people would love to help you succeed in life. Regardless, we need their help. So if you think you have a great idea, just do it. And get as much help and mentorship as possible from them.”

Steele said, “Eritai is so humble that even with all the hype and recognition, he has a huge attitude of gratitude for other people and everyone who helped him. He’s just the perfect person for that kind of opportunity. I think that’s why he’s had so much success. He’s kind to everyone he meets and he just wants to help everybody, especially his people.”

Les Harper, director of BYU-Hawaii’s Sustainable World Action and Technology Team (SWATT), said his team’s goal is to be able to reproduce what Kateibwi’s done in other students with their home countries. “What we want is to take the video and change the name, the country, and the project. … The way we have it set up here is so we can have that happen over and over again.”

In the video, Kateibwi says he has always wanted to help his home country. Harper said Kateibwi’s first idea was to start a resort on his island, but his idea changed when he started working at SWATT..

Harper explained when SWATT first started out in November of 2011, it saved the school an average of $35,000 a month. Since then, SWATT has saved the school millions of dollars all by projects and four basic things: pest control, recycling, green waste and compost waste, and Give and Take.

Steele said students who come to BYUH are given resources, mentors, and taught how they can solve their country’s problems when they return. “What Les provided Eritai through his program has done exactly that. [Kateibwi] is making history. I think he’s a great example of the mission of the university and the prophecy of David O. McKay.”

Harper said, “A lot of what we do is taking a problem, analyzing it to figure out what the real root problem is. Then we start building an answer, and once we feel we have a solution, we will prototype it.

“They fix it here so by the time they go back to their home country, they know how to control it and will be successful from it. Eritai might be in front of the U.N. talking about hydroponics today, but I saw a whole bunch of dead plants when he was trying to learn his way through it.”

Date Published: 
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Last Edited: 
Tuesday, February 13, 2018

NOTE: This article's online publication was delayed because it was featured in the Feb. 2018 print issue.