Utrecht University students in finals Biomimicry Global Design Challenge

Nature inspired design protects tea plants from night frost

Emma Luitjens, Georgios Agkavanakis, Yurhan Kwee, Janin Herkrath, Rushi Sanjeev Mehta, Franco Grosso Giordano
From left to right: Emma Luitjens, Georgios Agkavanakis, Yurhan Kwee, Janin Herkrath, Rushi Sanjeev Mehta, Franco Grosso Giordano

Students from the Master’s programme Bio-Inspired Innovation at Utrecht University have made it to the finals of the international Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. Their design offers a solution to the increasing damage Kenyan tea farmers suffer from more frequent and longer periods of night frost. In total, over 60 teams from 16 countries entered the Challenge. The eight finalist teams will receive assistance in developing their design further, and in bringing their innovation to market. The winning team will receive the $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize®.

In this years’ Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, the teams had to create a nature-inspired innovation to address a problem arising from global climate change. The team from Utrecht University designed an automated system triggered by temperature changes that provides a cover to tea plants. Their design draws inspiration from the biological mechanisms of two plants that grow in the mountain areas of Kenya. By using local and sustainable products, such as bamboo, sugar cane, and bees wax, the design also involves the local community.

Greatest learning experience so far

Their participation in the challenge is a completely extracurricular activity, but definitely their greatest learning experience so far, say finalists Franco Grosso Giordano and Emma Luitjens. In March, a finalist place was no way in sight. They had been exploring potential solutions for several climate change problems since November 2017, but their attempts were all dead-ends. However, the team persisted with discipline and hard work, and they finally achieved a breakthrough when Franco heard about the Kenyan tea farmers’ problems from a friend.

The mechanism of the design of the HABARI team

Wax from the Giant Liobelia

The first biological strategy they utilised is that of the Giant Liobelia. One of its mechanisms to withstand low temperatures is a waxy outer layer on its leaves. This prevents the frost from penetrating to the inner tissues.

Folding leaves from the Giant Groundsel

The other source of inspiration is the Giant Groundsel. To protect the inner buds from frost, this plant folds it outer leaves inwards.


The team choose HABARI as name for its project. "Habari is a greeting in Swahili which we thought was nicely tuned with the idea of the opening of the groundsel flower in the morning", Franco explains. "At the same time it also means 'novelty', and this fitted with the challenge in itself."

Video about the project from the students of Utrecht University

Project Launchpad in Montana

For the next round of the Challenge, two team members will have the opportunity join the Biomimicry Project Launchpad in Montana. But the team from Utrecht University is hoping to get permission and find the money to send the entire team. “We really did this together, just the six of us. Everyone had their strength and did their bit”, Grosso Giordano says.

Team members

  • Georgios Agkavanakis (Greece) – initiated the participation
  • Janin Herkrath (Germany)
  • Franco Grosso Giordano (Argentina)
  • Yurhan Kwee (The Netherlands)
  • Rushi Mehta (India)
  • Emma Luitjens (The Netherlands)

All team members are first year students of the Master's Programme Bio-Inspired Innovation at Utrecht University.

The team was supported by assistent-professor Jaco Appelman, programme coordinator of the Master’s programme.

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