Helen Weldemichael’s food safety innovation will decrease fermentation time and make the process more food-safe for an Ethiopian staple food, enset. Photo Credit: EatSafe/Technical University of Denmark
The 2022 EatSafe Innovation Challenge winner earned a $10,000 prize for developing a product that improves food safety—and empowers women in her country.
Helen Weldemichael, CEO and founder of SafeDish in Ethiopia, was named the winner of the 2022 EatSafe Innovation Challenge. Photo Credit: EatSafe/Technical University of Denmark
Helen Weldemichael’s family is from northern Ethiopia and she grew up eating hot enset bread baked by her mother. She only knew of enset, an Ethiopian food similar to a banana, as an ornamental tree with leaves used in traditional Ethiopian baking. But when Helen joined Wolkite University in the southern part of the country as a lecturer, she learned so much more about the flowering plant that is a staple food for about 20 million Ethiopians.
Ethiopians in this region use the entire enset plant for food. Women who process the plant often use their bare feet and hands to cultivate the plant, which can contribute to foodborne disease.
Helen set out to make it faster and safer to process enset by creating an enset processing machine and fermentation pot.
It includes a starter culture that speeds up the fermentation process, which takes almost a year to ferment into edible enset. Her process, which uses peat, is also more hygienic because it reduces potential contamination by organisms found in the ground where enset is typically fermented.
When she learned about the USAID-funded Feed the Future EatSafe Innovation Challenge online, Helen was inspired to submit her invention to promote food safety and share her invention beyond Ethiopia. Her enset processing machine and fermentation pot, created by her company SafeDish, was named the winner of the 2022 Challenge. With her $10,000 winnings, Helen plans to scale her business by seeking investors, selling other food products across Africa, and trademarking her innovation in Ethiopia and other African countries.
“In most African countries, there’s not a lot of awareness about the impact of the food safety issue,” she said. “We need to bring more awareness of food safety from the farm level to the urban areas.”
As the world celebrates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Feb. 11, Helen is an example of how women in STEM not only create products that address pressing yet localized food safety issues, but also reduce the time women spend making food for their families and their own livelihoods.
According to the World Health Organization, unsafe food – a preventable hazard – is responsible for one in 10 people falling ill, and the deaths of at least 125,000 children globally every year. Low- to middle-income countries bear the largest burden of foodborne disease and lose an estimated $95 million per year in lost productivity. As recent global shocks, such as the food security crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, have exacerbated food insecurity in northern Ethiopia, safely fermented enset can provide an important source of nutritious food. In times of insecurity, when so many people rely on cereal-based products, Helen is confident that her invention will help Ethiopians deal with inflation and supply chain issues as well.
Now an associate professor, she hopes to inspire other women in the STEM field as inventors and entrepreneurs. Her success exemplifies the potential of women once they are recognized and supported. After the competition, Helen applied for and earned a patent for her processing equipment for the fermentation of enset. And back in 2021, she was recognized by the Ethiopia Ministry of Higher Education for Outstanding Performance in Research and Technology.
Today, two of SafeDish’s four employees are women, and Helen says that representation in STEM is integral to women and girls.
“Study is important,” she added. “If we’re educated, we can change our communities. Education is the most important thing for women in developing countries.”