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Egerton University wins award for innovative use of water hyacinth  

One afternoon in June last year while on an excursion on Lake Naivasha, the boat on which Joseph Nguthiru and his eight friends were riding got stuck in water hyacinth for close to five hours.

He further noticed that businesses depending on the water body were counting heavy losses, thanks to a thick mass of the choking invasive weed.

Among those affected were transport, fishing and tourism operators. He also realized the eye sore that was the plastic waste at the lake and he thought he could find a solution.

Nguthiru finally decided the best way out was to turn water hyacinth into something useful. That is how he came up with the idea of turning it into raw materials for manufacturing biodegradable alternatives to single use of plastics.

The invasive plant which is native to South America has been spreading rapidly across the world and has also walloped large portions of Lake Baringo, Athi River and Lake Victoria.

Nguthiru, 24, is partnering with Egerton University in the project that he says will go a long way in addressing the twin challenges of the invasive weed and plastic pollution at Lake Naivasha.

He says the innovation is not only a smart way to deal with solid waste menace, it is also a means to provide environmentally friendly packaging materials and paper that biodegrade within four months after being discarded.

“I was motivated to come up with the innovation to address the effects of climate change and water hyacinth in our lakes,” says Nguthiru who did undergraduate studies in Environmental Engineering at Egerton University from 2018.

Under the mentorship and guidance of Engineer Japheth Onyando, a Professor of Soil and Water Engineering at Egerton University, Nguthiru has teamed with fellow students, Charles Kinyua and Pascal Nabiswa and patented a business concept, Hyapak, that converts water hyacinth into biodegradable alternatives.

Hyapak start-up uses water hyacinth to make seedling wrappers, pellets (granules) that are an alternative to conventional plastic pellets used in manufacturing a variety of paper products such as gift bags, cards, books, envelopes and folders.

“We have never heard of anyone who has created a single biodegradable seedling wrapper. This is our original idea,” submits Nguthiru.

Kinyua adds: “We thought about converting our project into a more sustainable idea. The data we have collected in the past one year indicate that tree seedlings planted with hyacinth wrapper are growing faster.”

The trio has bagged a Sh 500,000 award after their innovation emerged top in Kenya Innovation Week (KIW). They plan to use the prize money to conduct enhanced research on Hyapak.

“The award has a great social impact and we thank Egerton University for their technical support. It is a mark of appreciation and translates a lot to the environment. It means as a youth, we can make a change that can reflect in the world,” says Nguthiru.

While presenting the award, Principal Secretary, State Department of Youth Affairs, Ismail Maalim, said the government was committed to support young innovators develop their ideas to full potential.

Maalim added: “Our tertiary institutions and youth polytechnics need to play a more active role in supporting an innovation ecosystem, especially through recognition of innovation that can be patented.

Commercial research is a common practice in most parts of the world where private sector partner with universities and technical training institutes develop innovations in sectors such as medicine and engineering, earning technical training institutes and universities extra income.”

Just three weeks ago, the Institution of Engineers Kenya (IEK) recognized the innovation as the best among young Engineers in the country.

Before pocketing the cash prize from Kenya Innovation Week, the trio had in March 2022, won Sh1.65 million award after emerging top in the third edition of the Total-Energies Startup of the Year Challenge.

They further won the East Africa Youth for Climate Action Award by Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and emerged second runners-up in the World Engineering Day hackathon earlier this year.

Kinyua indicates that he was inspired to study engineering by his love for innovation. “I have a passion for developing something new,” he says.

Nguthiru, who is an alumnus of Alliance High School, says their project aims at solving the plastic pollution problem, particularly around major water bodies and the water hyacinth menace.

“The main focus is offering sustainable solutions to the problem of water hyacinth and plastic pollution,” said Nguthiru, who chose to study engineering to find solutions to communal problems.

“I enjoy researching problems and exploring new technologies. Engineering has allowed me to meet new friends who are also interested in science and technology,” he adds, noting, engineering companies should partner with universities to help young start-ups reap from their ideas.

The weed is collected from the shores of Lake Naivasha manually by hand. The weed is then transported to Hyapak business premises at Egerton University’s Njoro Main Campus where it’s chopped using knives and then dried in the sun. It takes approximately 8 to 12 hours for the weed to dry but depending on the weather patterns it may take two days to be completely dry.

After it has dried, the weed is crushed using a pulping machine and mixed with water then suspended on a wire frame where particles are sieved and the remainder is used to make pulp. The pulp is then modeled into the desired product and dried.

One of the major challenges the students have encountered is inadequate capital to mechanize the production of the paper. “The whole process from weed collection to production of end products is largely manual,” notes Kinyua.

 According to Egerton University’s Director for Agro-Science Park, Professor Paul Kimurto, the troublesome weed has more than 20 uses, including making paper, furniture, strawboard, garden sets, silage, baskets, and fertilizers.

Kimurto adds that despite all the problems, water hyacinth has tremendous merits. It contains 64 per cent methane and can be used for biogas generation and for water purification.

It is also valuable in traditional medicine, mushroom bedding material, carbon black production, making of ropes, production of fibre boards, as animal fodder and fish feed, green manure, compost, and as an ornamental plant. 

 Kimurto who doubles up as the University’s Director of Marketing and Resource Mobilization explains that as an organic fertilizer, water hyacinth produces pathogen-free rich compost (75.8 percent organic matter), which increases soil fertility, thereby improves the soil due to its low and narrow margin carbon: nitrogen ratio (C: N) of 1:24.3 with a lignin content of only 9 per cent compared with C: N ratio of 1:80 and lignin content of 17 per cent in wheat straw.

“Its roots can absorb plant nutrients and keep them into its trunks and leaves, which improves physical properties of soil, soil structure, ventilates the soil and makes it easy for water percolation,” he states.

Kimurto says it also naturally absorbs pollutants, including toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, and strontium 90 (as well as some organic compounds believed to be carcinogenic) in concentrations 10,000 times that in the surrounding water.

“Water hyacinth can be used either as green manure or compost, which may be either ploughed into the ground or used as mulch to cover soil surface while growing crops. Currently in Kenya, many innovative farmers are replacing the expensive inorganic fertilizer like DAP, 23:23:0 and CAN with such manures from water hyacinth. The manure contains many trace elements  which are rarely found in inorganic fertilizers and help plants to be more disease resistant and enhances quality of produce mainly fruits and vegetables,” notes the don.

Kimurto, a crop expert recommends use of water hyacinth as source of manure as it will help reduce its environmental hazards like degrading water quality, curtailing reduction in water movement, clogging of irrigation, hindrance of water transport, blockage of canals and rivers, causing flooding as is the case in Kenya now.

Under the Obnoxious Weeds Act, the East African Community has outlawed the use of the hyacinth for commercial purposes, arguing that it would encourage the users to encourage its growth.

Hyacinth is euryhaline, that is, it tolerates both fresh and marine water, hence it spreads at an alarming rate in water bodies.

By Jane Ngugi and Jackline Jepkorir

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