Garissa — A Kenyan firm plans to turn a water plant that has long been a nuisance for fishermen in Lake Victoria into an electricity generating resource.
Eichhornia crassipes, known as the common water hyacinth, is a freshwater plant native to South America. It has green leaves, flowers with purple and yellow petals, and thick stalks that can grow longer than three feet.
For the better part of three decades, the water hyacinth has infested and polluted Lake Victoria, and caused local fishermen many problems as boats and fishing nets easily become entangled in its weeds.
The Kenya Organic Research Centre for Excellence (KORCE) is looking to help environmentalists and fishermen rid lake waters in Kisumu County of water hyacinths by using the plant as a raw material for generating electricity.
"The firm plans to generate power by harvesting the plants and feeding them into a bio-digester that will in turn produce gas to turn turbines that will produce electricity," KORCE Chief Executive Officer and founder Sanjay Vadhera told Sabahi.
The firm has bought a 100 million-shilling ($1.2 million) machine for extracting the plant from the lake, he said.
KORCE has built a factory in the village of Rare that will start processing water hyacinths in mid-October, and is expected produce up to 120 megawatts of power daily, Vadhera said.
The operation will create job opportunities for locals and supply free electricity to communities within a 50-kilometre radius, he said, adding that KORCE plans to harvest 150 metric tonnes of water hyacinth during the first few months, and then increase production gradually.
A noxious, problematic plant:
Water hyacinths have had a negative effect on Lake Victoria since the late 1980s, when lakeside communities started to complain about the plant obstructing navigation and fishing, according to Lake Victoria Environmental Management Project (LVEMP) Co-ordinator Francisca Owuor.
"The plant grows at an alarming rate and forms an impenetrable carpet on the water that inhibits navigation, affecting fishing, which is Nyanza region's main economic activity. The plant covers more than 700 square kilometres of the water," Owuor told Sabahi.
"In 2000, the government officially classified the plant as noxious. It meant that the plant is a nuisance to the natural ecosystem, as well as lake users or investors, and should be eradicated with whatever means that is environmentally friendly," she said.
In addition to creating navigation problems, the plant deoxygenates the water and secretes humic acid when it decomposes, polluting the water and killing essential aquatic plants and animals, according to Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute scientist Reuben Omondi.
The water hyacinth infestation has proved a major headache for conservation efforts on the lake, he said.
The plant also causes headaches for fishermen who rely on the lake for their livelihood.
"We navigate with difficulty when going out to catch fish," said 45-year-old Kendu Bay fisherman Pius Owalo. "In October last year, we were rescued by villagers after spending three days out in the lake, stuck in the weeds."
"I just hope that if the plan to generate electricity from the plant is successful, the plant will be cleared once and for all," he told Sabahi.
Capitalising on the problem:
Nonetheless, the KORCE plan will be a good way to create jobs while working to solve the perennial water hyacinth menace, said Barrack Abonyo, the Kisumu County Executive Committee member in charge of energy and natural resources.
Past governmental and non-governmental efforts to eradicate the plant failed, he said.
"[Eradicating the plant] has been an expensive affair that has run into millions of shillings, but even scientists have not found a breakthrough on how to contain the plant," he told Sabahi.
"Many have resigned to the fact that the plant may not be eradicated. Communities around the lake have gradually accepted it and realised the solution lies in turning the plant menace into an economic opportunity," Abonyo said.
Martin Otieno, a former fisherman turned furniture maker, is one of the people who capitalised on water hyacinth. The plants used to aggravate him, but today it is a boon, he told Sabahi.
"The plant forced me to abandon the trade but it was a blessing in disguise because the plants I so much despised enabled me to [provide] for my family of six," he said.
Otieno, 42, now weaves chairs and makes ornaments out of hyacinth stalks. His new occupation has changed his life by helping him earn more money with fewer risks, he said.
"Going to the lake, we faced the risks of our boats capsizing. The fish also fetch little money. A kilogram of fish is also levied by government officials," Otieno said. "But with the hyacinth, I do not have to go inside the lake as the plant is also found on the shores."