Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Finding Uses for a Pest - Water Hyacinth

Water Hyacinth - its the scourge of the waterways of the warmer bits of the planet, including Kenya.

As I have posted in a previous blog, while I was in Kenya, we had a day trip to Bungoma - it should have been longer, but the car hire charges didn't allow us to stay - and I was amazed at what these people are doing with this weed.

But our visit was to advise them on the use of water hyacinth as a feed stock for a methane generator. Of course, any organic matter can be used, but some are easier to use than others.

The problem with water hyacinth is that it is a floating weed, so if it is put into an anaerobic digester untreated, it will just float. It is also full of water, being an aquatic plant.

It floats because, on the leaf stem, under the leaf, there is a bulb which is hollow and filled with gas (air?). These have to be burst or removed. Crushing the plant seems like a good idea. Then not only would these little gas bulbs be burst, but some of the water would be expelled as well.

So, to my mind, to make water hyacinth suitable for anaerobic digestion, it needs to be crushed and chopped up.  This can be done manually, but wouldn't it be good if we could devise a machine to do it? Or better still, to reduce costs, use or adapt an existing machine to do the job!

This has been on my mind since my visit to Bungoma, where I was shown a press to make briquettes for cooking. They now have three presses and I started imagining putting two of them together and adding some sort of press across the two of them which would crush the plants, bursting the bulbs and squeezing out excess water. Hopefully, I will soon be able to put ideas to paper.

While I was cogitating on the weed problem, I was contacted by someone in the USA who pointed me to a YouTube video. This showed how to prepare water hyacinth for human consumption. Apparently, it is very nutritious, and as there is an abundance in countries where there are food shortages (e.g. Kenya), I am now wondering if there is a way to use the plant as a regular food source. After all, there is a lake full of the stuff in SW Kenya - and I am sure it exists in other lakes and slow-running water as well.

Water hyacinth apparently makes a very good fodder for cattle. In Florida, USA, they spend millions on removing and destroying the weed. They also spend millions on cattle feed - well, there's a no-brainer!

If you have first-hand knowledge as to where water hyacinth is prevalent in Kenya, please let me know in the comments. In fact, if you have any experience in the use of water hyacinth for anything, please contact me.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Kenya Trip - Bungoma

During my stay in Kisii, I was asked by someone in the USA to travel to Bungoma (4 hours by road) to meet up with an organisation that is doing all sorts of research with water hyacinth, a water weed from South America that has found itself in the waterways of much of equatorial Africa.

The first thing we needed was a car, so we contacted the guy who had picked me up from Nairobi, Dennis. Of course he would hire me his car, a recent model Toyota Corolla. We negotiated a price (Ksh 3,000)and that was that.

Until it came to signing the contract. then Dennis decided that as the road was "not too good" he would prefer that I used one of his tougher cars, a Toyota Crown Mk II. It would cost me a further Ksh 500.

On the day in question, the car was to be delivered to the nearest road access we had at 7am. We were there, but the car wasn't. We phoned Dennis. his driver didn't have a phone, so Dennis picked us up and we searched for the car. We found it 100 metres down the road.

We followed Dennis to his office and garage where he filled the car with fuel and charged me Ksh 5,300. I was pretty sure that I was not going to use a tankful and spent the next half-hour wondering if I could syphon off the fuel I didn't use.

We were finally under way, on the road from Kisii to Kisumu. It is a switch-back of a road through the steep hills of the area, but it was in good condition and we made good time.

We passed through Kisumu without mishap, other than Vincent, who was navigating, only knew the matatu route, which took us through some of the more savoury parts of the town. But, eventually was cleared the town and started climbing out of the Lake Victoria basin, which is rather flat and uninteresting.

Two hours later, we were in Bungoma, another typically busy African town, full of bustle and nouise (and cattle). We met up with Salim and his colleagues in their office, where we exchanged ideas about whet weach organisation was doing and hoping to do.

We, that is Vincent and me, and Salim and his two colleagues went on a tour of their projects. At  this point, I was glad to have the larger car.

First stop was at Salim's house where he showed us a press, made mainly of wood, which is used to compress partially dried water hyacinth into briquettes which can be used as an alternative for charcoal for cooking. The press was impressive, and locally built, paid for by the organisation in the USA.

Next stop was the shamba of Salim's father. He had donated some of his land so that Salim could test composted hyacinth. The land was divided into small plots, the first being a control plot with no fertiliser. All the others had been enriched with water hyacinth mixed with various other ingredients. The tests were ongoing, but there was a marked difference between the enriched plots and the control.

We discussed the possible location of a anaerobic digester in the compound. This would use water hyacinth (possibly mixed with cow slurry to speed up the the anaerobic process), to see how efficient it would be for producing methane. There are issues with water hyacinth, which i will go into on another blog. However, it should be suitable with the correct treatment.

While we were at the shamba, Salim showed me another project of theirs, cooking stoves. That's nothing new, I thought, but these are made from mud (not clay) mixed with sawdust. These burners are hand-made, although at a casual glance, they look as if they came out of a mold - they were that good.

It was a good day and gave me much food for thought, like how best to treat water hyacinth to use it in an anaerobic digester.

We set off for home (Kisii) after a late lunch (see previous blog). By the time we arrived in Kisumu, it was dark, African dark. On the road out, I was constantly swerving to miss bicycles and motorbikes with no lights and it was a relief to get back into the countryside, where i only had to avoid bigger vehicles without lights.

Then we were hit by the thunderstorms. Anyone who has not experienced an African Equatorial thunderstorm has no idea what they are like. I hit a T-junction that I did not remember on the outbound journey and asked Vincent if we should turn left. He was preoccupied with the Swahili music blasting from the radio and nodded.

Then we were in the middle of a storm. I had to stop. I could not see the road ahead. But when the rain abated and we were on the move again, I was passing signs mentioning Kericho. This town is too far to the east. We had gone wrong.

Vincent could not believe it and instructed me to do a U-turn. He was now concentrating fully, looking for anything he might recognise. He didn't find anything!

We continued into the countryside, caught up with the storm, stopped and after it had passed, continued on our way to ... wherever.

We passed a couple of lads and stopped to ask directions. As their luck would have it, we would be passing their front door on the way back to Kisii, so we gave them a lift.

The pointed out the road we needed when we dropped them off in the middle of a small, dark village, and we continued on ... and on ... and on.

We passed a Police checkpoint at the entrance to another small, dark village and started to climb. After about 5 km, Vincent thought that we should have turned right by the checkpoint, so we did another U-turn. We were running low on fuel so we coasted back down the hill for 5 kms.

What a waste of time! The policeman sent us back from whence we had come, back up the hill. But at the top, Vincent said that the lights to the right were Kisii, a reasonable assumption as it is the only large town in the area.

We found our right turn and Vincent brightened up. He was starting to recognise things. I was still worried as the fuel warning light had been on for a long time - and I was running out of cigarettes!

But, we made it. We found a kiosk open and I bought a very expensive packet of ciggies.

The next problem was what to do with the car. In Kenya, you do not just park a car at the side of the road if you want to keep the wheels. We went to the nearest hotel to the house. Ksh 250 for the night. We phoned Dennis who told us to go to his house and he would drop us home, where we finally arrived at 23:30.

Dennis was disappointed that the Toyota was almost empty - that was his excess profit gone, but Vincent and I were very pleased with the trip and could even laugh about getting lost in the wilds to the east of Kisii.


I am astounded at how local workers for major charities are sometimes treated. As far as I can work out, there is a fixed pay scale for local people working for charities and NGOs, but many don't get anywhere near this, and some don't get paid at all.

I have been told of one case where someone worked for a NGO for over three years and has never received a penny.

The NGO is making placating noises but they are not paying up.

Now, I believe that it is often not the fault of the NGO head office, usually outside of Kenya, but of the local "management", who cream off the funding sent to them for their own use, leaving the workers on the ground with little or no money and with a shortfall of funds for a given project.

In the past, KCIS has been asked by a charity in the USA to "check out " the credentials of a group that wanted to affiliate and thereby receive funds. We investigated and found that the group, which was supposed to be fostering orphans didn't have a single child in their care, despite claims that they were looking after several children and consequently, did not receive any funding.

But all too often, funds that are supposed to be going to solve a problem, or to pay the ground workers, never reach their intended recipients, but the local managers get rich (relatively), build new houses, buy cars - it is all too obvious if only people would look and see and investigate.

But then, if the powers that be in the country are "at it", then why shouldn't those closer to the ground get their snout in the trough as well?

Monday, 14 December 2009

Kenya Trip - Clean Drinking Water

Apart from a shortage of food, one of the big problems in Kenya, indeed Africa, is the lack of clean water to drink.

I have seen a few "gadgets" that allow people, particularly children, to drink dirty water through a special straw that filters the water instantly. I have seen others that the drinker fills with water and shakes, producing clean, clear water. But, will these ever get down to the grass roots? Who will pay for these implements?

SODIS is a means of purifying water using the UV rays of the sun. When a 1½ litre plastic (PET) bottle is filled with water and let in the sun for 8 hours, anything living in the water will be killed. No bugs, no germs, no live eggs.

So, we have started to show this to the children at the Twiga Centre. Now, they each have a bottle or two at the  centre, which they fill from the borehole and leave on the corrugated steel roof during the week. The following weekend, when they return, they can run around and then have a drink.

We are now encouraging them to do the same at home with harvested rainwater, so that they are sure the water is safe (they drink "raw" rainwater and sometimes pick up a tummy bug).

A small change in their routines, but, hopefully a big change in their health.

Kenya Trip - Tilapia

I have looked up tilapia, or Nile Perch on the Interweb, with a view to possibly breeding them in still waters for food, and also as a means to reduce mosquito larvae (tilapia love mosquito larvae).

But I had never eaten one, although they are common enough, being sold raw or ready-cooked in markets, on the roadside ... they are the East African MacDonald's.

A couple of weeks ago, I travelled to Bungoma to meet some people working on ways to use water hyacinth, which is a ... well, that's another blog, isn't it?

After our meeting, we were invited to a late lunch at a nice restaurant in Bungoma town. As it was pouring with rain, we dashed from the car into the building, but i had left my reading glasses on the dashboard. So when it came to reading the menu, I couldn't and relied on Vincent, my associate and good friend to order for me.

Vincent and one of our hosts were served first and I was horrified to see what was on their plates - a large fish, head to tail included, accompanied by a mound of ugali.

Then our other host was served the same and my heart sank. I don't eat fish as a general rule, and I am not too fond of ugali, especially in the quantities that Kenyans seem to eat it!

My plate arrived, with complete fish and ... chips! The waiter also brought me a spoon and fork, which I declined.

So there was nothing to do but tackle this monstrosity on my plate. I watched my companions to see how they tackled it. It looked easy enough, so I gave it a try. Pinching the skin between two fingers and my thumb, I felt the flesh come away from the skeleton. I gingerly put it to my mouth. It was delicious. No, it was better than that.

On the way home, I mentioned to Vincent that I rarely eat fish, but that I have really enjoyed the tilapia, and a couple of days later, for dinner, it was served again.

On my return to the UK, I was doing the weekly shop in a big shop starting with "T", and as I passed the fresh fish counter, what did I see? Fillets of tilapia. To be sure, it was not Kenyan tilapia. This was from Jamaica. But I bought two fillets anyway, and yes, it was just as good.

Kenya Trip - Methane

Soon after arriving in Kisii, I could be seen rummaging through the Kisii markets and street traders for bits to (finally) build an anaerobic digester, to produce methane, which i believe can be used as a cooking fuel, amongst other things.

I have ranted on about finding a sensible alternative to wood or charcoal for cooking and stating that methane is the best for most people in rural areas, so, I will not go into our reasons again - just yet.

The first component needed is, of course, a large gas-tight container. a 45 gallon oil drum is fine. At Ksh 2,500, it is not too expensive, but as a pale-skinned potential client, the price had risen inexplicably, but I am not a tourist and got the price back down again.

With a bag full of bits, mainly water plumbing fitments, I imagined that I could get the digester working. So we set off for the site and started to build.

Unfortunately, not all the bits fitted each other, other bits failed and yet others had the wrong thread (the hazard of buying in a market), but eventually, we had a sealed drum with an outlet with a gas-tight tap on it.

We loaded it with fresh slurry from the cow shed next door. Getting it through the standard 2" hole in the top of the oil drum was a trial - and very smelly - but we made a funnel from an old plastic container, which made the job easier. We topped up with rotted cow dung, mixed well and cooked at about 35C, the heat provided by the sun, of course.

According to all the reports I have read, an anaerobic digester takes about a week before it starts to produce methane, but maybe they didn't have the advantage of equatorial sun.

Being impatient, we could not wait the allotted week and tried out the gas that was being produced within a couple of days. It was not methane, or at least, it did not burn. We released all the gas out of the drum, hoping that we were releasing any oxygen, leaving only the product of the digestion process.

The next day was a success. The gas produced a flame!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

My Trip to Kenya - Arrival

Although I have posted a couple of blogs about my latest trip, I will now blog in detail!

I arrived at JKIA early on Thursday 12th November and was met by Vincent, who had hired a taxi in Kisii to take us back. We had negotiated the price beforehand (Ksh 7,500), so there were no nasty surprises in store - or - but this is Kenya.

The driver, Dennis, drove out of the airport and got us onto the Uhuru Highway, where we stopped for breakfast. It was agreed that, as Dennis had driven all night, I would take over and drive some of the way to Kisii, so I took over at this point.

The car was a recent Toyota Corolla (naturally! Are there any other cars in Kenya?) and a pleasure to drive until we hill an uphill. It was automatic, but there were so many protective mats on the floor that the kick-down couldn't work, so we crawled up the hills, being overtaken by overladen, clapped-out lorries and matatus that I had overtaken on the flat.

We crossed the Rift Valley, passing through Narok and Bomet, where I stopped. Dennis took over again and we made it to Kisii well before dark.

Then, Dennis told me that the agreed price was leaving him out of pocket and he needed another Ksh. 1,000 - naturally. I paid.

At the house, we got the greetings and present giving over, and I could relax, which was just as well as Vincent had arranged our first appointment for 8:30 the following morning.

I slept well and was ready for anything the following morning. The meeting went very well and I received an email to say that funding had come through for a particular project. We collected the money from the bank and planned our trip to Bungoma. We needed a car, so we went back to Dennis and he agreed to hire me the Corolla for Ksh 3,000. but more of this later.