Woman’s invention, an ‘unusual product’ she came up with in middle school, now used all around the world

Kavita Shukla.

When Kavita Shukla was in middle school, she began conjuring the beginnings of an idea — “a little, five-inch sheet of paper” — that could help have a real impact around the globe. Years later, her invention, FreshPaper, is now used all over the world by anyone who wants to keep food fresher for longer. On Friday, Shukla will speak at the Nobel Prize Dialogues, a part of the official Nobel Prize Week slate of festivities happening in Stockholm. The event is meant to foster high-level discussion among Nobel Laureates, top scientists, key opinion leaders, and policy makers on a topical science-related theme. This year’s theme is the future of food.

Shukla, whose simple yet highly useful invention has become a global success, is natural choice for such a discussion. In fact, earlier this year she was named a Toyota Mother of Invention and appeared at the Women in the World New York Summit. During a visit to the Toyota Solution Studios, Shukla talked with journalist Sumi Das about the inspiration for her innovative product, which helps solve the problem of food waste, and how she made it a reality.

“FreshPaper is a very unusual and simple concept,” Shukla explained. “It’s just a little five-inch sheet of paper that can be used in a refrigerator drawer, in a fruit bowl or in a developing world environment to keep fresh for longer.” Shukla came up with the idea when she was 12 years old. “It started as my middle school science project,” she recalled, “that was inspired by my grandmother in India.”

During a visit to India to see her grandmother, Shukla inadvertently drank some tap water while brushing her teeth — a risky proposition depending on where in India one is visiting. To make sure Shukla didn’t fall ill, she said, her grandmother gave her a concoction made with a mysterious mix of spaces. Shukla, who recalled that she was a little “skeptical,” drank it down and any stomach ailments that may have been threatening were kept at bay.

For her science project, Shukla, her curiosity piqued by the mystery brew, set out to discover what had actually happened with that mix of spices her grandmother gave her. Her research led her to discover that the spices her grandmother had mixed up in a drink were all very effective at inhibiting the growth of fungus and bacteria. At the time, she couldn’t do much with her discovery, but eventually she used the phenomenon to create a technology that kept strawberries fresh for longer. When the concept was proven, she had FreshPaper and began selling it at a local farmer’s market in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The total cost to create her invention was an impressive $1,800. It’s been described as a dryer sheet for produce.

Strawberries resting on a piece of FreshPaper. (Fenugreen).

Strawberries resting on a piece of FreshPaper (Fenugreen).

At first, she tried to launch FreshPaper as a nonprofit, but ran into obstacles at every turn. Three years ago, she was named a Toyota Mother of Invention and since then she’s been able to bring the product to market for consumers and has partnered with large-scale retailers and farmers around the world, and in developing countries, where the technology can have a dramatic impact.

One fact Shukla said she was stunned to learn was that the world’s farmers actually produce enough food to feed the planet’s entire population — but one quarter of the food they harvest is lost to waste.

As CEO of Fenugreen, Shukla said she’s testing and working on an array of other solutions to everyday problems, many of them food-based. Of her success with FreshPaper, Shukla said, “When a community gets behind an idea, it can really change everything.”

Watch her full interview at the New York Summit back in April below.


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