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JKUAT alumni and innovator turns water hyacinth into biofuel

By Patrick Amunavi
Erick displays the prize award he bagged at the Climate Launchpad National Finals at Strathmore.

Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology alumni, and Innovator, Erick Gathirwa Kariuki, has developed a biofuel innovation by harnessing the water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) into a bioethanol product that can be used as cooking fuel in households.

Erick Kariuki, who graduated in from JKUAT with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Biotechnology, developed an interest in renewable energy and biofuels while on a visit to the Lake Victoria region, when he was a student.

“I came face to face with the effect of the water hyacinth on the local environment in Lake Victoria region and I asked myself, what I could do to turn the water hyacinth menace into something useful?” Kariuki said during an interview last week, when he visited JKUAT and met the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Victoria Wambui Ngumi.

“I designed the cooking fuel innovation from water hyacinth weed as an undergraduate project. The results were so good. After consulting my supervisors, I decided to pursue the patent process through the JKUAT Directorate of Intellectual Property Management and University Liason (DIPUIL),” Erick stated.

The Sustainable Blue Economy conference held in Nairobi, 2018 provided an opportunity for Erick to participate and showcase his innovation idea to potential investors in the marine and water related areas.

“I was encouraged to participate and thereafter, I applied for Climate Change Launchpad competition, facilitated by the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre at Strathmore University.”

He participated in the 3 series of the competition and made it to the national finals where he emerged position three (3) in Kenya, earning a slot to represent Kenya in Scotland.

“I got sponsored for the Global competition in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2018 and made it to the finalists top 16. Consequently, the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre agreed to incubate my project, Aqua ethanol technologies,” Erick revealed.

 Prof. Ngumi (left), during discussions with Erick.

Aqua ethanol project is basically the production of bioethanol cooking fuel by harnessing the water hyacinth weed that has caused a lot of harm to the lake region’s aquatic economic activities including water transport and fishing.

Last year, Erick was selected to join the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship programme to sharpen his entrepreneurial acumen, and develop a viable product ready for commercialization.

The postgraduate student who is pursuing Masters in Science in Bioinformatics at Makerere University on a scholarship, says he is working towards developing other viable products.

 

What inspires Erick? “Problems inspire me. Whenever I encounter problems, I do what I can within my capacity to make a change,” he states, citing Dr. Joel Bargul in the Department of Biochemistry, College of Health Sciences, Erick adds, that his role model are his mentors.

The innovator has a special message to students at JKUAT: “It is okay to think differently. Most graduates in Biochemistry dream to go to Kemri, or to be medical representative. To be odd is what helps you to shape your past. Think differently,” he advises his peers.

Asked about his plans for the long term, Erick confidently avers: “I see myself serving people in the area of renewable industry in whatever capacity; providing solutions to problems.”

Erick who attended Njiiri School in Nyeri, between 2011 and 2013, has high regard for the training he received at JKUAT. “The Biochemistry course and training was intensive. Our lecturers were and still are very actively engaged in research at JKUAT and ICIPE. They motivated us to work hard.”

Prof. Ngumi commended Erick for his outstanding work as a young and promising innovator, stating that Erick’s innovation and recognition demonstrated the commitment of JKUAT professors and researchers who are doing a great job in nurturing a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs for the country and the region.

“Eric has done so well. We are proud of him as JKUAT. We are confident he will go very far,” the Vice Chancellor said during the courtesy call meeting.

The bioethanol cooking fuel innovation which has been patented is poised to sustainably address the water hyacinth problem, while at the same time generating income from bioethanol as well as providing cheaper alternative source of clean energy for Kenyan households, thus reducing reliance on fossil fuels like paraffin commonly used for cooking by low income populations.

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