23 Jul 2019 Story Green economy

Persistence pays: powering a green economy

The sun fades fast on a small village surrounding the outskirts of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city. Shadows fall in long dark lines across a neat row of houses. A group of school children race through the alleyways on their way home, clutching their school books.

Outside one of the houses, Mariama Mamane sits on the ground in the dust, huddled over a blue generator. The 29-year-old environmental engineer is attaching a large blue square bag containing biogas to a generator with a long tube.  

The generator is stuck. With determination fixed on her face, she switches a series of tools between her hands as she tries to kick-start the machine branded “Jacigreen”—the name of her company founded in 2016. “It will work!” she says.

Jacigreen tackles the problem of invasive water hyacinth plants chocking the city’s water supply. Her invention cuts up water hyacinth, fermenting it into fertilizer and compost for farmers, called Jacigrow—available in bottles of 250 ml, 0.5 litres, 1 litre and 5 litres.

The by-product of the fertilizer is a gas, which Mamane’s machine captures in blue plastic square bags, like the one she is trying to attach to the generator now, and converted into electricity for families who don’t have a regular power supply.

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Water hyacinth chokes waterways, but can be turned into rich compost, while creating biogas. Photo by Georgina Smith / UN Environment 

Mamane’s fertilizer and biogas prototype is now complete. Now, she is working with families and farmers surrounding the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering (2iE), where her biogas prototype is located, to test the fertilizer and biogas.

As the shadows become longer and the night closes in, the generator sparks into action. A light flutters in the house and Mamane is quietly jubilant. Wiping away the dust and scorching heat of the day, she walks into the house to inspect the fluorescent bulb.  

“Our aim is to provide solutions for families who do not have access to electricity and are using wood,” she explains. “Biogas can reduce deforestation and the encroachment of the desert into communities.

“We also aim to reach the maximum number of farmers to reduce chemical fertilizer use, building a resilient ecosystem and healthier products for consumers,” she says.  

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Mamane’s aims to make natural fertilizers for food production, as an alternative to chemical varieties. Photo by Georgina Smith / UN Environment 

By 2021, her vision is to reach 500 households with biogas and more than a thousand farmers with fertilizer. She is no stranger to determination—it has got her where she is today. When I won the Young Champions of the Earth prize for Africa, I faced so many challenges in building my prototype during this entrepreneurial adventure,” she explains.

Transforming my idea into a concrete solution required a lot of research. I ordered equipment from China and Germany because it isn’t available locally. I found myself doing everything—from masonry to plumbing—to build this prototype. But the prize gave me courage, and this has been an unforgettable learning experience.”

“It is important to persevere when something seems impossible. Pushing through these times helps you grow and gives you energy in your professional life. I encourage other girls and young women to push beyond their dreams, and they will achieve,” she adds.   

The learning experience has been shared by Robert Maleika, her mentor and Head of Strategic Intellectual Property Management at Covestro—a leading manufacturer of polymer materials based in Germany, which drives the Young Champions of the Earth Prize. 

“We already had some big technical solutions to her problembut of course developed for large scale biogas plants,” he notes. “Building something from scratch in rural and remote areas of Burkina Faso pushed us both harder to find new solutions that were not immediately obvious,” he adds.  

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Jacigreen’s mission is to reach 500 farmers with biogas by 2021. Photo by Georgina Smith / UN Environment 

Mariama quickly envisioned what impact her prototype might have on society in rural areas, explaining that the value of biogas lies in its application in regions without electricity, and that the fertilizers reduce waste and boost agricultural production on small plots.  

Entering a long room shaded from the piercing mid-day heat at the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering, Mamane’s Professor Harouna Karambiri warmly greets her. Mamane’s achievements hold a message for other young entrepreneurs too, he says. “Courage, hard work but above all curiosity will make you successful in your project.”

Water hyacinth is one of the world’s most invasive, resilient and harmful aquatic weeds. Joakim Harlin, Chief of UN Environment’s Freshwater Unit, says that combating infestations is very difficult and requires a freshwater ecosystems approach, addressing land and water management to reduce the nutrient which feeds the weed.

“Utilization of water hyacinth for commercial and subsistence purposes like the initiative Mariama has taken not only helps controlling the weed and protecting the environment but also converts a problem to a livelihood opportunity,” he notes.

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Light at night allows Ouedraogo’s children to read, improving their education. Photo by Georgina Smith / UN Environment

As the light flickers in her sitting room, Kadijatou Ouedraogo explains what it means to have the biogas light at night.

The children can read their homework at home when we have light. I also make cooking oil from sesame seeds. Raw sesame seeds sold at the market fetch around 80 cents per day. By making them into oil, I can make around US$5 per day instead.”

With the profits, Ouedraogo plans to start up a new business selling clothes. Already paving the way for new enterprises like this, the power of Jacigreen is just gearing up.

The Young Champions of the Earth Prize, powered by Covestro, is UN Environment's leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges. Winners of the 2019 competition will be announced in September. Stay tuned.