Jack O’Connor is one of the co-founders of Moyo Nua, an agricultural organization that takes its name from a combination of the word moyo, meaning life in the Malawian language of Chichewa, and nua, meaning new in Irish Gaelic. O’Connor isn’t a farmer—he’s an Irish city kid from Limerick—but the university sophomore has spent the past two years designing a seed planter with the hope of making farming in Malawi just a little bit easier.
O’Connor was still in high school when he watched the film ‘One Dollar a Day’, a documentary born out of a series of viral YouTube videos featuring American college students living in rural Guatemala. Watching the film, O’Connor says, “nearly struck me to the core.” For a city kid, thinking about life as a subsistence farmer kicked him into action.
He started researching rural agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, and that led him to Malawi, a country the United Nation calls “one of the most climate-fragile countries in the world.” In Malawi, about 80% of the country’s food is produced by smallholder farmers, and O’Connor was moved to design something that could ease the physical demands of farm labor there.
There was a lot of trial and error along the way. “We just, honestly, started throwing out ideas [and] looking at previous models that existed in the world,” says the University of Limerick sophomore, describing the project’s early days back at his secondary school. Eventually, explains O’Connor, “we came up with this idea of an ergonomic seed planter to allow the user—in this case, a smallholder farmer—to plant seeds without having to bend over.”
O’Connor and classmate Diarmuid Curtin turned to a slew of experts—agronomists, mechanical engineers and experts in rural development all offered their advice on the planter’s design. The idea ended up winning the Science For Development Award at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in Dublin in 2017, which turned out to be pretty crucial, since it came with a trip to Malawi where, with the help of an organization called Self Help Africa, the Limerick kids were finally able to get the planter into the hands of Malawian farmers for field testing.
In Malawi, the farmers made a number of suggestions for improvement, like making the tool out of locally sourced materials like bamboo. In total, 18 farmers from Southern Malawi tested the planter. That feedback, along with input from 13 retirees who tested the tool back in Ireland, all helped to inform subsequent iterations of the design. They’re currently on prototype number three, with a patent pending.
The visit to Malawi was humbling for O’Connor. “We were chatting with the farmers…about the importance of their children being able to attend school and how this planter, by reducing labor intensity…would allow their kids to start going [to school]…So that really hit home with me because I never considered, until I was actually over there, that the reality for some children is that they have to sacrifice education for sustenance.”
O’Connor enrolled at the University of Limerick after graduation from secondary school, and he kept working on the planter. At the university, the project took on a whole new life, as O’Connor met students like Catherine Hallinan, who felt herself immediately compelled to join Moyo Nua and work on the ergonomic planter. “[Jack] was telling me about it…and I convinced him to bring it in [to the school],” says Hallinan, excitedly. She has also been interested in finding ways to expand Moyo Nua’s focus, like offering social media training to young business students in Malawi.