Water Weeds, New Fuel of the Future

The water hyacinth literally deprives Kenyans of breath

Local entrepreneur of Kisumu

One of the fastest-growing floating water plants, the invasive water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), has returned to Lake Victoria. This plant threatens the health and wealth of tens of millions of people who depend on what nature has to offer from the lake.

The bay of Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, is one of the hardest hit areas. Here, a rotting layer of water hyacinths has developed which is so thick that other plants and trees have grown on top of it. Sometimes goats even use it to cross the water. Underneath the rotting layer aquatic life has drastically deteriorated.

Inhabitants say the water has an unpleasant taste and that they catch fewer and smaller fish. Health risks are increasing as a result of mosquitoes and snails, toxic algae and foul-smelling bacteria. The lake’s important functions such as transport, tourism, fisheries and water supply are coming to a standstill. Waste water discharge and poor land use mean that nutrients and sludge continue to flow into the lake, supporting the growth of water hyacinths. Also, people have encroached the surrounding wetlands and marshes which means they no longer act as a buffer for in-flowing sediment and fertilizers.

There are more problems in the lake area. Inhabitants often use locally made charcoal or firewood for cooking which has lead to massive deforestation and erosion. With a population growth forecast of 3-4% a year, a solution looks further away than ever. The result is that Lake Victoria has become more sensitive to climate change. The area is a biodiversity hotspot but under current circumstances unique species are disappearing quickly and for good. A new knowledge-driven approach based on integrated water and land management can break this downward spiral.

We can use water hyacinths to make biofuels. Who wants to join in?

Local entrepreneur of Kisumu

Over the past decades, around half a billion euros have been spent on fighting the water hyacinth in this area. Mechanical, biological and chemical methods have been tried but nothing seems to work. Now a knowledge-driven Kenyan-Indian-Dutch project called Waste to Energy has developed an integral methodology based on a sustainable company plan. Viable business cases are at the core of this approach. By applying the right knowledge, it is now possible to harvest the water hyacinth and use it to make all sorts of things: from biogas to paper and from cattle fodder to fuel pellets. After a thorough study of the local market and users’ analysis, it appeared that processing hyacinths into clean cooking fuel is the best result for everyone.

A platform for cooperation has been set up at national level which allows local partnerships, together with public and private players, to benefit from expertise in the field of sustainable entrepreneurship. Together they are delivering tangible results that improve both the lake eco-system and the local economy. Something which they could not have achieved as individual parties. A practical example is the application of information from Google Earth Engine. This makes it possible to see when and where it is the most cost-efficient to harvest the water hyacinth and thus increase returns. There is no problem if the project manages to harvest all the water hyacinths because five other organic waste products have been tested as alternatives.

Processing waste and undesired plant material is a welcome source of income in Kisumu where many people are looking for work. The market will now be further developed through the sale of cooking devices designed for this cooking fuel. Village chiefs and women, who play a vital role in the acceptance of local projects, help to organise production and sales as well as investing in the schemes themselves. They value the cooperative way of working which is in line with traditional African values that prioritise a small ecological footprint and self-reliance. That the women in Kisumu can now cook safely is seen as significant progress. Tens of thousands of women and children die every year as a result of unsafe cooking methods. This new clean and affordable cooking fuel can really improve the situation and there is also less need to cut down trees. The biofuel also helps companies to become more environmentally friendly as it is a good replacement for the heavy diesel oil on which about 65% of the Kenyan economy depends.

A clean Lake Victoria transforms the whole region

Local entrepreneur of Kisumu

A fixed part of the profit from the Waste to Energy project is put aside to stimulate new entrepreneurship and investments to strengthen its goals. This flexible form of financing makes long-term support possible for the restoration and management of regional wetlands, waste water policy and the application of new knowledge. It also makes it possible to demonstrate innovations and build vocational capacity. The biofuel that has been developed from plant waste has an increasingly bigger effect and is part of a new framework for integrated restoration of the region. The implementation of this project has delivered considerable knowledge and experience and can serve as an example for other bays which have deteriorated in a similar way.

As from 2019, the knowledge acquired will be published on a platform so others can use it. For example, much practical knowledge has been gained on how to work together structurally at local level so that the needs of the local population are central. The long-term lake basin approach based on cooperation can be compared to a trading partnership or guild. The result is that an inclusive, green and blue governance model is functioning in Kisumu – one that unites agro industry, food, safety, jobs, finance and ecological recovery by using integral water management and public-private partnerships. Its implementation takes a lot of time and energy. But it offers local communities support to start restoring and managing their resources and by doing so, improving their perspective for the future.