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Teacher turns evil weed into fuel

 A local organisation has discovered a way to transform hyacinth into bio ethanol and use it for cooking and lighting homes.They are producing 100 litres a day

Bernard Gitau @benagitau

Water hyacinth in Lake Victoria has become an ecological plague, choking life out of the water mass. Government efforts to eradicate the plant through mechanical, manual, biological and chemical methods have registered insignificant results, draining millions of shillings.

But there might be light at the end of the tunnel in efforts to remove the invasive plant as an innovation group in Yala, Siaya county is harvesting the weed to produce bio ethanol fuel.

The Centre for Innovation Science and Technology (CIST) Africa, manufactures bio ethanol fuel, blends and stabilises it for cooking and lighting households using water hyacinth feed stock. Richard Arwa, CIST founder says the environmental pollution caused by water hyacinth was his motivation to finding an economically viable method to eradicate it.

“The plant is not a problem in Kenya only, but in Africa and other continents. The weed has blocked all the fish landing beaches, paralysing fishing activities and lake transport,” he notes.

The invasive plant affects fishing in Kisumu, Siaya, Busia, Homa Bay and Migori counties. “The economy of the lake region is losing hundreds of millions of shillings daily due to the inaccessibility of the lake,” he adds.

The weed has also encroached most of the beaches along the lake shores. Due to this, Arwa, a secondary school tutor conceptualised a project to make fuel from the weed. “I am a Biology and Chemistry teacher and while I was teaching at Mudiero Secondary, we presented the project during a science congress competition in 2016,” Arwa says.

The project went up to regional level in the energy category during the event held at Nyansiongo Secondary in Nyamira County. “I was transferred to Lion High school, but I actualised the project into a viable business opportunity.

It is registered as a school-based organisation,” he added. The business viability to produce clean, affordable energy and eradication of water hyacinth won the group a grant from National Environment Trust Fund (Netfund).

“We are the first organisation to discover how to biodegrade cellulose into fermentable sugars to produce the fuel,” he says. The group, which has five employees, collects water hyacinth from Lake Victoria and hires fishing boats to transport to the shores after harvesting manually. “The raw plants are sterilised to prevent infections and chopped.

To break cellulose in bid to ferment we optimise the condition of temperature, acids and different enzymes,” he noted. Three types of enzymes are used to convert cellulose into dextrin and other enzyme convert dextrin into soluble sugars, which is fermented to get ethanol.

“A fermented soluble sugar takes three days where we distill it through batch distillation to get the final bio ethanol fuel energy,” Arwa reveals. Currently, they are producing 100 litres a day with a customer base of 560 households.

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