KAVITA SHUKLA is founder and CEO of Fenugreen, which makes the FreshPaper she invented as a teen. Shukla holds four patents, and has received numerous honors for her work, including the INDEX: Design to Improve Life Award. In addition to taking first place at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair while in high school, she has been recognized by the Lemelson-MIT Foundation, the Cartier Women’s Initiative, the Social Venture Network, the Davidson Institute, and the British and Swiss consulates.
A package of decaying strawberries sparked an idea that would alter Kavita Shukla’s life. Shukla was just a high school student on a routine trip to the grocery store with her mom, but seeing moldy strawberries that day marked a turning point in an exploration she had begun several years before. While in middle school, Shukla had traveled to India to visit her grandmother, who gave her a traditional home remedy of herbs and spices after she accidentally drank some unfiltered tap water. When the mixture worked, Shukla was really impressed.
“My grandmother did not have a lot of education. She grew up in a village without electricity. It was really remarkable to me that she had this traditional knowledge that was so powerful,” Shukla said. “I asked her a lot of questions about the different herbs and spices she used. I was very curious, and when I got back to the US, I started some experiments with the mixture in my garage.”
Her homegrown experiments with jars of water and kitchen sponges began to reveal something quite interesting—her grandmother’s remedy was somehow preventing the growth of bacteria and fungus. While amazed at what she saw, Shukla didn’t know how to take it beyond her garage. She was just a kid and could not conduct trials in a clinical setting. Then she saw the strawberries, and the thought hit her: “What if this mixture could help prevent fungal growth in food, enabling it to stay fresher longer?”
An estimated 30% of all food in the US, valued at more than $48 billion, is thrown away each year. Consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa in any given year. This entails a colossal squandering of resources, including water, land, energy and labor, and it needlessly drives greenhouse gas emissions.
And while Shukla may not have started her experiments with food waste in mind, by the end of her senior year in high school she was becoming well versed in the issue. After several years of meticulous experiments, she was granted a patent for FreshPaper—a simple product based on her grandmother’s remedy that keeps fruits and vegetables fresh two to four times longer than normal. Shukla was eager to take her invention into the real world.
“As soon as I got to college, I tried to build a nonprofit organization to take FreshPaper to places in Africa and India—villages like the one where my grandmother grew up. I learned that there were over 1 billion people without access to refrigeration and I thought this product could help,” she explained.