Prince William’s £1 million eco-prize could go to 14-year-old schoolgirl

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Vinisha Umashankar
Vinisha Umashankar

A 14-year-old schoolgirl is in the running to win a £1 million prize from Prince William, after inventing a solar-powered iron cart to drastically cut pollution.

While others her age were on school strikes to protest about climate change, Vinisha Umashankar turned her hand to engineering, designing an innovative cart which runs on five hours of sunshine to transform a traditional trade in India.

There are currently around 10 million ironing carts in her country running on charcoal, which burn constantly throughout the day causing lung disease and high levels of pollution.

After developing an interest in science when she received an encyclopedia for her fifth birthday, Vinisha is now a finalist in the Duke of Cambridge’s Earthshot Prize.

She joins 14 others in the running for five £1 million prizes, and is already receiving advice on how to scale her invention to sell it at an affordable price in India, before exporting across Asia and Africa.

“As the youngest finalist, I want to inspire students around the world to take a keen interest in science to innovate products and solutions for protecting our air, water and land for people, animals and plants,” said Ms Umashankar.

“Our Earth needs best ‘shots’ to become cleaner and greener – you’re never too young to make a difference.”

She now faces competition from two others in the Earthshot’s “clean our air” category: the Blue Map App from China, the country’s first public environmental database enabling citizens to hold polluters to account, and Takachar from India, which creates profitable products from agricultural waste to put a stop to the burning of crops.

The prize received 750 nominations from 86 countries on every continent.

No UK projects made the final, although Dr Thomas Crowther, founder of Swiss-based online platform Restor, is British.

The website invites people around the world to share their efforts in local conservation, allowing others to learn from what they have done and replicate it.

 Dr Thomas Crowther - Mark Henley/Panos
Dr Thomas Crowther - Mark Henley/Panos

It is a finalist in the “protect and restore nature” category, along with Pole Pole Foundation, which protects gorillas and communities who live near them in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and an entire country: the Republic of Costa Rica, which is paying citizens to restore natural ecosystems in its rainforests.

Prince William said: “Over half a century ago, President Kennedy’s ‘Moonshot’ programme united millions of people around the goal of reaching the moon.

“Inspired by this, The Earthshot Prize aims to mobilise collective action around our unique ability to innovate, problem solve and repair our planet.

“I am honoured to introduce the 15 innovators, leaders, and visionaries who are the first ever Finalists for The Earthshot Prize.

“They are working with the urgency required in this decisive decade for life on Earth and will inspire all of us with their optimism in our ability to rise to the greatest challenges in human history.”

All 15 finalists will now receive tailored support and resources from the Earthshot Prize Global Alliance Members, a network of private sector businesses tasked with helping to scale their climate solutions.

Five winners will now be selected by the Earthshot Prize Council and will receive £1 million in prize money at the inaugural ceremony on Oct 17 in London.

The citation for Ms Umashankar from Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, said she “proves you are never too young to help the environment through innovation”.

Describing her inspiration, it said: “One day, on the way home from school, Vinisha saw an ironing vendor dumping charcoal in the garbage.

“Curious, she began researching the impact of charcoal.

“She saw how smoke causes lung disease among vendors. And she was shocked to learn of the connection between charcoal and deforestation – each year industrial quantities of trees are felled to make charcoal.

A man irons clothes for customers with a coal powered iron in Thrikkannapuram - NurPhoto via Getty Images
A man irons clothes for customers with a coal powered iron in Thrikkannapuram - NurPhoto via Getty Images

“Vinisha’s solar-powered cart replaces dirty charcoal with clean energy from the sun.

“Five hours of sunshine powers the iron for six hours – a win for the environment is also a win for vendors.

“Extra mobility means they can sell on doorsteps as well as the roadside. Built-in phone top up and charging points bring extra income too.

“Overall, the ironing cart helps 13 of the 15 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“Passionate about innovation, Vinisha traces her love of science to the encyclopaedia she received on her fifth birthday. It instilled a fascination about how things work – one that intensified as she realised the power of invention to do good.”

Writing an introduction to a new book about the Earthshot Prize, Prince William said he had wanted to replace a wave of “global pessimism and finger-pointing” about climate change with a “can-do spirit”.

The Duke of Cambridge - Kensington Palace
The Duke of Cambridge - Kensington Palace

Jason Knauf, the chief executive officer of William’s Royal Foundation, said: “The challenge the Duke set himself was ‘What is the maximum positive personal contribution I can make in the next 10 years in the fight against climate change?’

“‘What am I going to do in the next decade that means I can look my children in the eye and say that I did my bit?’ Every aspect of the prize bears the stamp of his contribution.”