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Turning stubborn water hyacinth into charcoal briquettes

 Water hyacinth. [Ayoki Onyango, Standard]

Lawrence Kipruto runs a bar and a restaurant in Milimani, Kisumu County.

He uses wood charcoal to cook food and roast chicken and meat for his customers. But wood charcoal is expensive in Kisumu due to lack of wood and trees for charcoal burning besides the ban on logging by the government.

“Sometimes if a relative or friend is travelling to, say, Lower Eastern or South Rift, one can ask them to buy makaa as it is cheaper in those places,” says Kipruto, adding that a 90kg bag of charcoal goes for Sh3,000 in Kisumu but in Kitui County, the same goes for Sh1,700.

But Kipruto and other residents of Kisumu have lately turned to charcoal briquettes made from water hyacinth and are ideal for domestic and commercial use. 

The water hyacinth charcoal briquettes are being made by students and graduates of Pennsylvania State University in Human Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Programme.

Dubbed GreenBriqInitiative, the project also includes the Dunga Women Group from Kisumu, local university students from Ecofinder Kenya, experts on wetland conservation and the Kisumu County government.

Research for the project was such that it ensured both safety and that the water hyacinth charcoal burnt as similarly to wood charcoal as possible.

 Some of the charcoal briquettes. [Ayoki Onyango, Standard]

One block of briquette charcoal burns for 45 minutes, almost 20 minutes more than wood charcoal.

Paul Hughes, the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, GreenBriqInitiative, said, “We are not currently selling our briquettes, we are only conducting research and gathering user feedback.”

He said they hope to complete the project and start selling the briquettes at lower unit prices than wood charcoal. They will be sold in sacks of 50 and 90 kilogrammes.  

The project is not only an income generating one, but also intended to ease pressure on current wood charcoal prices besides getting rid of the water hyacinth.

It will also reduce the cost of waste disposal from collecting 20 tonnes of water hyacinth dredged by mechanical harvesters from the Kisumu County government, daily.

And how is water hyacinth turned into charcoal?

Hughes explains that after harvesting, the hyacinth is laid out to dry in the sun for three days.

“We then carbonise the weed in kilns and get biochar. We then mix the hyacinth biochar with our starch binder and put the mixture through briquette machines and get briquettes, which we dry for two days and they are ready for use,” he says.

The project will also ultimately reduce the destruction of forests for firewood and wood charcoal burning.

Hughes says the project, besides economic benefits and job creation, will also offer a cheap, alternative source of energy and help end the problems water hyacinth causes to fishermen, the fishing industry and sea transport on Lake Victoria.

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