Leeds student Emily Cummins has, among other things, won the Sustainable Design Award at the 2009 Women of the Year Awards, Female Innovator of the Year 2007, Technology Woman of the Future 2006 and Cosmopolitan's Ultimate Woman of the Year.
She spoke to the group of how her interest in making things work started at an early age and led eventually to great success. She puts her creativity down to the inspiration of her grandfather, in whose shed she learned at a young age to take things apart and build them up.
Her interest in solving technical problems led her to the national final of the Young Engineer of the Year at the age of 15. She pointed out that not having any knowledge at that stage of patents led to her losing the rights to her product and it turned out to be a valuable, if painful, lesson.
Always looking for a challenge she became involved with an organisation called Practical Action a charity which attempts to use simple technology to transform the lives of some of the world’s poorest people. She designed a water carrier from materials already available in Africa and constructed it in such a way that it would be easily repairable. This won her the Sustainable Design award.
In the meantime she had become obsessed with the idea of developing an energy-efficient fridge which could be easily used in Africa. Feeling that she needed to become more aware of the needs and limitations of the country she went to Africa, at the age of 18, to do voluntary work. She ended up extending her stay, living in a township in Namibia.
She learned a great deal about the lives and resourcefulness of the people and their opinions and suggestions helped her to improve the fridge. She encouraged them to make the fridges themselves. She hadn’t thought of making money out of it her only aim had been to help improve the situation of the people. Now thousands of them are in use.
On returning home to go to university she found that the media had got hold of the fridge story and great interest was created. Various companies offered her funding and she was nominated for the Technology Woman of the Future. This really launched things. She decided to make a commercial version of the fridge. Through meeting various high-profile personalities she was able to continually promote the fridge.
Emily is now in her final year in university and planning to go back to Africa next year. She hopes to continue developing new inventions particularly related to sustainability. Her enthusiasm and determination to make things happen - particularly for the benefit of others really stands out and as several people at the meeting commented, hers is an inspirational story.