Sebei youth minting millions from human waste and plastic bottles

Patrick Chemonges one of the team members feeds empty plastic water bottles into the crushing machine. Picture credit: Javier Omagor


By Javier Omagor, Step FM/NECJOGHA

Kapchorwa, Uganda – A group of young people, majority women in Kapchorwa district Eastern Uganda, have started a new project which is using solar energy to transform human and livestock waste into efficient cooking fuel.

Pick It Clean, an upcoming local social enterprise – a for-profit company also focused on social good – has begun providing portable toilets to homes that lack proper sanitation. They also provide residents with garbage bags which are given to those with livestock for collecting the dung.

Located in Kapchorwa town, about 255 km (148 miles) northeast of Uganda’s capital city Kampala, Pick It Clean, is highly seen as a special treasure by the communities especially among the farmers.

Erratic weather has meant prolonged delays of planting for farmers from the Sebei sub-region and yet the new season is already witnessing excessive rains.

In his 30 years of farming, William Chelengat says he has never been late planting maize like in the last three years.

“The farming communities no longer have enough compared to 15 years ago; these days when it rains, it sometimes falls too much, making the crops over-grow or not germinate,” says 75-year-old Chelengat.

“Yet when it shines, sometimes it goes on for a long time, withering the crops,” a demoralised Yusuf Muhamud Mudondo, the general manager at Kaserem Area Cooperative – KACE, said in an interview.

At KACE alone, Mudondo says farmers only managed 500 metric tonnes of maize in the first season, far below the expected 700 metric tonnes, while those growing beans could only produce 140 metric tonnes instead of the usual 200 metric tonnes they harvested last year.

Going by this picture, the ever-changing weather patterns are frustrating farmers hence undermining production and giving way for a hunger outbreak.

Part of the crushed plastic bottles which the group later transports to Kampala for recycling. Picture credit: Javier Omagor

It’s against this background that the youth came up with this innovation which they believe will provide answers to some of the over weighing climatic questions their community is faced with.

The group says this is an effort to ensure that they help reduce on cases of community members endangering the environment by cutting down trees which is one of the causes of climate change.

Joan Chemusto, the team leader believes that Pick It Clean will combat the cutting down of trees for charcoal and firewood.

They also see it as a workable measure to improve hygiene for people in their community’s majority of who don’t have latrines.

 “It’s obvious that our future is being shaped by the reality on ground. Our local population are appreciating our innovation and have owned it,” says William Chepteok the head of operations at Pick It Clean.

The group consists of 10 members; seven female and three male, most of who are unemployed university graduates. Seven of them studied agriculture or chemical engineering at the university.

According to Joan Chemusto, their leader, they were compelled to intervene by the devastating impact of climate change to their community. They started by brainstorming on climate change mitigation measures, before agreeing on the biogas power plant proposal.

The locally made toilets, called “Blue Boxes”, are portable and require no fixed plumbing.

Later, the accumulated waste from the Blue toilets is collected by the team before feeding it into their machine as a by an essential raw material. To use the toilet, one has to subscribe on a monthly or preferably on annual basis, with each subscriber paying a monthly charge of Ug. Shs 10.800 (about US$3). For an annual subscription one pays UG Shs 129,600 (about US$36).

Subscribers are allowed to discontinue their subscription at will but when such a person reconsiders getting back the service, they will be charged a slightly higher amount.

The bottle crusher is alternatively powered by the energy generated from the human waste. Picture credit: Javier Omagor.

The health implications for a community with little access otherwise to modern toilets is significant, said Dr. Beatrice Aguti, of Mbale regional referral hospital.

 “Safe waste disposal is one of the best ways to prevent diarrhea. This is a challenge for the vast majority of peri-urban dwellers, who are mainly low-income people,” Aguti said.

Chemusto says that it took them six months to mobilize resources and convince area members to be part of it. 

Asked on the financial implications of coming up with such a project, Chemusto said that it cost them just over Ug Shs 15 (US$.4,166). This money helped them purchase a few machines, hire station space, customized garbage bags and pay for labor.

 Around 60 toilets have been provided so far, serving over 300 people. But it’s what happens to the waste after it is collected from the toilets that makes the project more than a simple effort to improve sanitation.

The Empty Plastic bottle crushing machine the team is apparently using at Sebei Youth Biogas Project Picture credit: Melanie Aanyu

How they handle the human waste                                                                           The waste is mixed with charcoal powder and with waste plant material from nearby flower farms, which has been burned and crushed into fine powder.

Pick It Clean uses solar technology to concentrate the sun’s rays and heat the toilet waste to a high temperature, sterilizing it and making it safe for reuse.

The mixture is turned into smokeless briquettes that people can buy for cooking at home. Chemusto, says theirs is one of very few projects that use this model to transform human waste into solid fuel.

Norah Chelengat, a mother of five children from Kapchorwa Municipality, has been using a Blue Box toilet at home, and cooking with Pick It Clean briquettes for a year.

“The fact that the toilet is portable means that it can be used in any room of the house. So you don’t have to worry about getting outside to use the toilet,” she said.

Chelengat uses half a kilo of the briquettes to cook a meal. Although at 900 shillings ($0.25) per kilo they cost a little more than she would pay for ordinary charcoal, she says they burn for longer – up to four hours.

“You don’t keep adding fuel when cooking, given that it can last for a long time,” Chelengat said. Another advantage is that the briquettes produce no smoke or odours, she said.

“When customers use our briquettes, bought at a higher price than charcoal, the efficiency from the long burn time actually saves them 10 to 15 percent per month on fuel costs,” Chemusto estimated.

She believes that people choose the service because it offers them a chance to have a clean toilet in their own home.

Crushing plastic bottles to save the environment

Empty plastic bottles ready for crashing. Picture credit: Javier Omagor

The team have also hired an empty plastic bottle crushing machine in a bid to protect the environment.

“Empty plastic bottles take up valuable space unless they are crushed, and if not recycled, are potentially causing a lot of harm to the environment,”  Kiprotich said.

Adding that crushing and the bottles and disposing of them in recycling bags or bins saves space and will make it possible for our country to recycle more and more bottles.

They hire people to help collect empty bottles across the main towns of the Sipi sub region including Bukwo, Kween and Kapchorwa and even Mbale town as well.

The empty plastic bottles are later crushed using their own generated energy – powered machine.

The crushed content is usually measured by kilogram weighing machine then sold to the bottling companies from Kampala who drive upcountry to fetch it on weekly basis.

Irene Muloni, the cabinet minister for Energy applauses the initiative by the Sebei Youth’s Biogas Power Plant Project.

Muloni, however, asked the team to formalize their plea for government support, so that a technical team could be assigned the role of overseeing their activities and informing the line ministries on their progress.

Like Muloni, another minister, Sam Cheptoris of Water and Environment is impressed by this community and youths driven climate change initiative.

Cheptoris who also hails from Sebei sub region, says his office will consider any necessary support the group may require in order to support their venture. 

According to the National Forestry Authority (NFA) Sebei region is second to Teso sub region in Eastern Uganda facing severe deforestation.

NFA records as per 2017 indicate that the region cuts down 38% of its trees and green cover on monthly basis. This is blamed on cooking firewood collection and clearing of land for farming.

Challenges                                                                                           Despite the fact that their services would be highly required by far and wide communities across the country, the team says they don’t have the capacity to broaden their innovation.

They have limited financial resources to develop their plant to a bigger stage and also register with the Electricity Regulatory Authority – ERA.

Isaac Kiprotich, the head of programs says that they also require further training on advanced renewable energy production and management, a thing he says has held them back since there is no source of new ideas.

“The main limitation we’ve faced since inception of this project in 2017 has been the cost of re-skilling our talent, we would love to acquire potentially advanced skills in regards to operating renewable off-grid power but we’ve got no money for it.” he said.

 “The ruling government is exceedingly committed to encourage and support community driven innovations such as this one and I want to promise that my office will follow up on this project in Kapchorwa and ensure that they are assisted once we deem right to do so.” Energy Minister, Muloni said.

this will soon be history with the emergency of their initiative but they will need massive technical, financial and otherwise support in order to do that.




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