Published On: Fri, Jul 22nd, 2016

Kenya’s humble teen inventor

Natural gas burns on a kitchen stove in Hornchurch, U.K., on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. The regulatory investigation into alleged manipulation in the U.K. gas market, Europe's biggest, may fail to undermine a price-setting system that relies on daily conversations between journalists and traders. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Natural gas burns on a kitchen stove in Hornchurch, U.K., on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. The regulatory investigation into alleged manipulation in the U.K. gas market, Europe’s biggest, may fail to undermine a price-setting system that relies on daily conversations between journalists and traders. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

NAIROBI, (CAJ News) – AN invention that turns human waste into a vital source of methane gas has emerged as pivotal in Kenya’s quest for clean energy solutions and thrust a humble teenager on the path to global stardom.

Leroy Mwasaru , who has just turned 18 and is fresh out of high school at the Maseno School in Kisumu County, is the brains behind the human waste bioreactor, a brilliantly innovative system that converts waste into fuel, which he developed and trialled when the new dormitory of his local school could not efficiently process the amount of sewage being created.
At 18, he is already a chief executive officer, two years after he co-founded a company born out of a setback which culminated when the construction of a dormitory at his school placed a strain on the community’s sole source of water. Human waste was flowing into the nearby river.
The school was using firewood in the kitchen, much to the detriment of timber in the area, amid rising demand.
Through a mentorship programme offered by a non-profit organisation, Mwasaru and his school friends built a human waste bioreactor to remove waste from the 720-student dorm, preventing the pollution of natural resources, creating a safe source of methane fuel, and saving the modest school KSh 3,92 million (US$39 540) used for buying firewood.
Today it no longer uses firewood to power its stoves. The bioreactor is a superb innovation.
During the test phase, Mwasaru and friends used two tanks with one turned upside down and placed in the other. When the bacteria reacted with the oxygen and waste, gas was created. The top part raised up proving the presence of biogases.
Storage pits were dug while students would collect cow dung and food waste which they used instead of human waste during the prototype phase.
A non-profit company provided funds to buy a digester to facilitate the process. The gas produced in the pit was then filtered through a pipe into the kitchen, and used in the stoves to cook food.
Such has been the brilliance of the invention that it has been embraced in his Taita Taveta County homeland where the whole community is now using gas.
“Immediately after high school in 2015, we made a pilot project in my rural home. The gas production, fortunately, was more than we had estimated therefore we channelled it to neighbours at a small subscription fee.”
A couple of years later Greenpact, where Mwasaru is co-founder and CEO, is among the companies that are driving Kenya’s adoption of clean energy as well as Africa achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
Greenpact’s operations include installing biogas systems in rural, urban and commercial set-ups. The company is in its first stage seed funding cycle and doing its research and development to re-invent water efficient separating biogas toilets.
These toilets will serve both rural and urban residential and commercial centres to reduce their energy costs in championing for cheap renewable energy adoption and proper sanitation.
What makes Mwasaru’s rise to arguably the country’s youngest environmental activist and among the most recognisable faces in the clean energy movement globally is the fact he grew up with a dream of becoming a pilot.
“Since my childhood, I always marvelled at aeroplanes, wanting to be the one steering it. I had always envisioned myself as a pilot,” he said in an interview.
“That was until I underwent a paradigm shift when I was in high school. From then, I always knew I would be a social entrepreneur. I guess it has a lot to do with the interactions I had with my peers. With social entrepreneurship there is a lot to learn and gain from,” he said with the assertion that belied his age.
He reminisced how Greenpact had thrived from being a high school science project to become a significant player in the clean energy industry.
“I made this work simply by making sure my co-curricular came as a reward of what I did in class. Furthermore, it was a way of making sure I applied what I learnt so I could not become a passive learner.
“Now I’ve graduated from high school I believe what I learnt has pretty much equipped me with what I will need. I hope to supplement it while in college,” the teenager said.
Mwasaru’s invention and executive role have been recognised internationally, enabling him to create history in the process.
“I have had the privilege of speaking in various international forums,” he said.
The first one was in San Francisco at the Techonomy Conference while he was only 16.
“It was the first time I had the opportunity to speak to key tech leaders in the world among them being CEO and founder of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner, Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel, just to name a few.
“That trip changed my life in how I view the world and also getting to see how such accomplished figures think from my personal interactions with them,” said the youngster.
In May, he was in the US as the youngest presenter at the One Young World Summit, a gathering of forward-thinking young people, NGOs and world leaders to create positive global change through new ideas.
He was the only African of the 13 speakers.
Greenpact is also part of the 2016 Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme where he is the youngest cohort.
Beyond Greenpact, he is a Facilitation Fellow at Innovate Kenya, a non-governmental organisation that encourages youth, mainly high school pupils, to come up with innovative solutions to solve problems in their local communities and offering pro-bono consulting in charity organisations.
For a teenager who also still harbours academic ambitions, one would say Mwasaru’s schedule is daunting.
He conceded there were challenges but he felt up to the task.
“Well, for entrepreneurship, it has its own demeanours and misdemeanours.
“The challenges that come with this is that not everything will turn out as you want it to be. To counter these, I embrace a lot of team work and work with my mentors,” he said.
“Tenacity is always a mandatory aspect for entrepreneurs. To strengthen this, a thirst of always wanting to know more has kept me on track.
“I am also a voracious reader. My selections are not biased; anything that seems interesting goes well with me. This is a trait I learned from some of the serial entrepreneurs and economists I look up to.”
He highlighted the breakthroughs thus far.
“I would say my biggest breakthrough will be when Greenpact is able to positively impact on my country and Africa. As of yet, my biggest breakthrough is identifying what I want to do, which is environmental activism through entrepreneurship.
“Climate change has affected us big time and we must find a way to tackle it and make everyone conscious about it.”
Despite his wisdom, invention and sharing the podium with global leaders, Mwasaru said he is just like any other teenager.
“Apart from Greenpact, you can find me enjoying Afro soul, volunteering, playing Monopoly, in a book club discussion or supporting my country’s rugby team, Kenya’s Sevens.”
– CAJ News

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