Divin Kouebatouka, from the Republic of the Congo, came up with a solution to solve two environmental problems. So destructive is the water hyac...Divin Kouebatouka, from the Republic of the Congo, came up with a solution to solve two environmental problems.
So destructive is the water hyacinth plant to lakes and rivers in Africa that fishermen call it “the curse”, says Divin Kouebatouka, a 32-year-old engineer who is the first Congolese innovator on the shortlist.
“When I returned to my mother’s village on the banks of Lake Djoue after studying engineering abroad, I saw an invasive plant that had literally invaded the lake, blocked marine navigation and asphyxiated the fish,” he says. “It had halted fishing activity, which is the main economic resource of the village.”
Kouebatouka, a Colorado State University graduate who says he is motivated by protecting the environment after being struck by the impact of the climate crisis on the Congo at a young age, began to think about possible benefits of the water hyacinth plant, which is native to the Amazon basin but now found across the world and whose rapid spread has been intensified by global heating.
“We studied the properties of hyacinth and found it is rich in nitrate, which is good for compost; rich in protein, which is good for animal feed; and it has a high absorbency,” he says. “It could also solve another environmental problem: the leakage of oil – the main cause of marine pollution in the Congo. So we decided to create a ‘bridge’ between two environmental problems – each one should be a solution to the other.”
We’ve turned a botanical problem into a solution for an environmental problem, creating employment and skills development
His team at Green Tech Africa developed a way to turn the plant’s stems into highly absorbent fibre that can suck up oil from the ground or water, or plug an oil leak in a container. Today more than 10 companies buy the product, called Kukia, which can hold up to 17 times its weight in hydrocarbons, the compounds that form the basis of crude oil. In 2018 the idea was nominated for the African entrepreneurship award.
The Republic of the Congo has large reserves of crude oil and natural gas. Oil spills are common in industrial processes and the automotive and shipping industries. Kukia is sold to petrochemical and pollution control companies and the public through fuel stations and wholesalers.
The young engineer and his team found a way to use the invasive plant’s absorbent properties to absorb oil spills. Photograph: Victoire Douniama/GGImages/RAEng
The project has also provided employment for local people who collect the plant and produce the fibre, earning more than the average agricultural wage. There are almost 900 collectors, 80% of whom are women.
“We collected more than 5,000 cubic metres of water hyacinth – equivalent to two football stadiums of water hyacinth – on the banks of the Congo River, which made it possible to restore the waterways, promote the resumption of fishing and restore economic activities for a population of more than 100,000 people,” says Kouebatouka.
“Parts of the plant that aren’t useful for the fibre are used elsewhere – roots are composted and leaves turned into animal feed. Once the stem fibre has been used on an oil spill or leak, it can be repurposed as a fuel source by cement factories,” he says.
Kouebatouka and another in his team put the processed water hyacinth into bags.
Parts of the water hyacinth that are not absorbent, such as the roots and leaves, are turned into animal feed. Photograph: Victoire Douniama/GGImages/RAEng
For Green Tech Africa, the next step is to establish a biorefinery to produce energy and a range of products from the invasive plants. “We’ve turned a botanical problem into a solution for an environmental problem, creating employment and skills development along the way. Kukia is simple, scalable and effective, and can make an enormous difference in Congo and worldwide.”