Ghanaian MIT innovator, Isaac Sesi, writes tribute to American Family for their role in his life

By Ebimo Amungo

Ghanaian inventor, Isaac Sesi, was unveiled to the world in 2019 when MIT Technology Review’s listed him among of 35 Global Innovators Under 35. In a recent publication in “Humans of New York” Isaac Sesi paid tribute to an American family who befriended him as child, paid for his education and played a major role in his life.

This is the tribute by Isaac Sesi published in Humans of New York

I was just a neighborhood kid. There was no running water in our house. Or electricity. So in the evenings, when I came home from school, I’d sit out near the road. Across the street there was a hotel where foreigners stayed. I’d watch them play Frisbee. I’d watch them buy African souvenirs from the street vendors. Occasionally one of them would come speak to me. I was an inquisitive child. I liked to ask questions. So I think they found me entertaining.

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One evening an American girl came up to me and started asking me questions. Just small talk: ‘What’s your name?’, and things like that. But then she asked my birthday, and I told her: ‘November 19th.’ ‘No way.’ she replied. ‘That’s my birthday too!’ And after that we became friends. Her name was Talia. She’d come visit me every evening, and bring me chocolate chip cookies. She’d let me play her Game Boy. She’d ask about my family. She’d ask about school.

I was the best student in my third grade class, so I’d show her my report cards, and she’d get so excited. She was the first person to take me to the beach. I’d never even seen the ocean before. We had so much fun together. But one evening she told me that she was going back to America. And I began to cry. She bought us matching necklaces from a street vendor, took one final picture, and promised that she’d write me letters. It was a promise that she kept.

The first letter arrived a few weeks after she left. And there were many letters after that. She told her parents all about me. They invited me to America to stay with them for a month. They took me to baseball games, and amusement parks, and shopping trips. It was the best time of my life. When I returned to Ghana, they paid for all my school fees. They bought my books and clothes. They paid for me to get a degree in engineering. Now I have my own company.

The Cassis family turned my life around. I was just some random kid they didn’t know, and they gave me a chance for my dreams to come true. I went back to visit them last year. But this time I didn’t need them to pay my way. I was giving a speech at MIT, because I’d been selected as one of their top innovators under the age of 35.”

Who is Isaac Sese: This is the citation in the MIT Technology Review that announced his inclusion in their list

He created an affordable fix for one of the most vexing problems for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa

Photograph of Isaac Sesi
Isaac Sesi

Isaac Sesi built a gadget he believes can tackle one of the biggest risks faced by farmers across Africa: the contamination of grains following harvest.

Sesi’s product, GrainMate, allows famers and grain purchasers to affordably measure moisture levels of maize, rice, wheat, millet, sorghum, and other staples. It’s designed for a simple yet persistent problem: according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 20% of sub–Saharan Africa’s cereal output is lost or wasted, often because grains aren’t dried sufficiently before they’re stored. Grain stored while moist can develop aflatoxins—contaminants produced by fungi that are harmful to humans and animals.

In Sesi’s native Ghana, individual farmers often sell their harvests to aggregators or animal feed producers; if one farmer’s crops are too moist they risk spoiling the entire batch. Although imported moisture detection devices are available, few farmers in Ghana can afford the nearly $400 price tag. “That might be half of what a farmer is making from his entire field” per harvest, Sesi says.

Isaac Sesi

Sesi, who grew up without electricity or running water and often went to school hungry, spent much of his childhood tinkering with electronic devices. He learned by dissecting broken radios and other abandoned gadgets with the help of a book from his school library. He long sought a way to apply that passion to a field that could have a social impact—and in 2017, as a recent electrical engineering graduate, he got his chance. A United States Agency for International Development project operating in partnership with his school, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, had recently designed a grain-moisture meter for the local market. But it wanted to bring the cost down and find a way to produce the device in Ghana.

Sesi was their man: with the help of a small team, he streamlined the original device, redesigned its circuit board, built an accompanying mobile app, and found five Ghanaian subcontractors to make components that had previously been sourced from China. Sesi’s device sells for $80—less than one-fourth as much as existing alternatives. Sesi and his team are now developing a more efficient version of the meter and a second product to help farmers identify ideal soil inputs. They’re also raising funds to expand to the bigger markets in Kenya and Nigeria. Ultimately, Sesi believes he can help farmers across the continent cut wastage, minimize economic losses, and improve the safety of their products.