Big Ideas

04.05.13

It’s Not Paper, It’s Empowerment: How Kavita Shukla’s Invention Can Fight Poverty

It’s a piece of paper that could take a serious bite out of world hunger—and it was invented by a 17-year-old.

At age 17, as a senior in high school, Kavita Shukla filed for her second patent: a piece of paper that would transform how food is stored and kept fresh. Ten years later, her product is being used in 35 countries, has been called “the miracle paper” by The Washington Post, and was recently launched in Whole Foods. FreshPaper is infused with organic spices that inhibit bacterial and fungal growth; when stored with produce, it can keep food fresh two to four times longer than normal—like refrigeration without electricity. The spice mixture comes from an old family recipe passed along by Shukla’s grandmother, who once gave it to her after she accidentally drank tap water on a visit to India. “Drink this and you won’t get sick,” she was told.

On Friday, Shukla was joined onstage at the Women in the World Summit in New York by Rula Jebreal, a host and foreign-policy expert at MSNBC. Jebreal lamented the fact that while the world’s farmers actually produce enough food to feed the world’s hungry, 1.3 billion tons of food are lost annually to spoilage. What’s more, some 1.6 billion people currently living without access to refrigeration struggle to keep their diets healthy. Shukla’s company, Fenugreen, which she started in 2010, targets these people, along with food banks and small-scale farmers. “For so many people, this was about so much more than a piece of paper,” she said. “It was about empowerment.”

“Don’t ever discount your own simple idea.”

Jebreal praised a low-tech solution in an era when many innovators are relying on high-tech innovation. “What if I had dismissed it as too simple?” Shukla asked. “Simple ideas are the ones that have the power to change things ... and they have the power to spread.” For FreshPaper, simplicity meant accessibility, which was key to ensuring the product reached anyone who could benefit from it.

As the discussion drew to a close, Shukla reminded inventors everywhere that complicated isn’t always better: “Don’t ever discount your own simple idea.”

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