High-yield ideas

September 26, 2022

Food Security

By Joseph R. Williams, R'84

High-yield ideas It’s an odd combination: Seaweed, slaughterhouse waste, and a young sociology graduate from West Baltimore working in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

But Tariq Abdul-Akbar, ’18, says his venture to create inexpensive organic fertilizer from seaweed and steer carcasses could not only ease an ongoing global fertilizer shortage, but help end food insecurity in developing nations. It shows such potential that his fledgling company, Firdous Biotech, is in the running for an innovation award from the Clinton Global Initiative.

Abdul-Akbar’s quest to build a better fertilizer began during an internship with the Australia Africa Business Council, a bilateral trade organization; at the time, he was a master’s student at Macquarie University in Sydney, just after graduating from UR.

The job led him to think about food insecurity in general — and fertilizer in particular.

Farmers in Kenya were getting near-perfect tomatoes.

A lifelong science aficionado — his elementary school project involving earthworms won a Baltimore science fair — Abdul-Akbar, then living in Kenya, tinkered with seaweed, an East African export. High in phosphorus, it helps plants grow, but as a fertilizer, it needed a boost.

Inspiration came on a Zanzibar beach stroll in 2020 when he saw abattoir workers dump steer carcasses into the ocean. “The slaughterhouses are actually right near the coastline,” Abdul-Akbar says.

A few experiments later, Abdul-Akbar determined waste cow parts were the missing enhancement. Preliminary results are encouraging. “Farmers in Kenya were getting near-perfect tomatoes,” Abdul-Akbar says, and one farmer yielded 50 tons of “near-perfect” onions. Now, Abdul-Akbar is recruiting investors to grow manufacturing, and he credits his liberal arts education in part for his success.

“Although I was studying sociology, I did research in the neuroscience lab,” he says. “I had friends who were studying biology and chemistry.”

Besides, sociology and agriculture aren't that far apart. “Everybody’s got to eat,” he says.