Last week, Nairobi hosted the fourth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA4), which discussed the major challenges facing the environment around the world.
Alongside discussions about the challenges, innovators showcased solutions to some of the world’s pressing problems. We take a look at seven below:
1. DRINKABLE AIR
There’s a lot of water in the atmosphere. Trillions of litres of water just floating around.
What if we could trap it and put it into a dispenser for use?
Well, Amar Taylor, the director of Africa Trade Corporation did just that. While similar to the ordinary dispenser on the outside, this dispenser purifies the water to remove free radicals.
“The water passes through a carbon filter so that any large particles that may have been collected during condensation are captured and chemicals are neutralised.
“Then it goes through a minerals filter which recharges the water with minerals. And that is what’s dispensed into your cup,” he says.
The units range in size depending on how much water they can produce every day: be it 30, 400 or 15,000 litres of water in a day.
The systems can be re-engineered for additional production capacity. The 30-litre machine costs Sh400,000.
The machine uses electricity, but is energy-efficient – when it fills up, it stops the conversion process.
“It’ll keep running as long as you’re drawing the water to refill. But it does periodically keep purifying and cooling the water,” he adds.
2. 3-D BAMBOO PAVILION
A house-sized 3-D printed bamboo pavilion outside the complex hosting the UNEA4 meetings welcomed visitors with an entertaining interplay of curves, shadows and natural lighting, inviting attendees to engage with the structure.
The ecological structure brought in by a Yale University architectural team is a result of collaboration between the university and the national laboratories in the US.
The geometric structure is made of three-dimensional panels printed in layers. It is made of self-supporting, prefabricated frames joined together, and it is mobile.
Mandi Pretorious, an architectural researcher at Yale University, said the structure was made out of renewable bio-based materials – materials like bamboo that would be ideal for construction, but have been taken for granted.
The structure was made from 20 per cent sheath bamboo and corn starch. On the side are coconut panels made from coconut shell pulp.
Agricultural waste products that are not made for outdoor use can be used indoors for the walls or ceiling panelling.
“It has been outside all its life so that it is subjected to all kinds of different and extreme weather conditions to test its firmness ... It has even been through a hurricane in Miami,” said Pretorious, adding that because the structure is 100 per cent bio-based, it would degrade effortlessly.
3. WATER PURIFYING SYSTEM
Eight students from Kenyatta University based in Mombasa showcased a prototype of a self-cleaning fish-farming water system.
“We’re here to tell farmers that they don’t have to import bio-filters. They can make them right at home and still achieve sustainable aquaculture,” said Levis Sirikwa from Aquablue Kenya.
Water from the fishpond contains waste like ammonia. It moves to a reservoir where sediment settles before moving into a bio-filtration chamber that is layered to achieve both mechanical and biological filtration.
The bottom is packed with netting and sponge to filter out any fine sediment that might have escaped the first tank.
The next layer is made of pumice which starts the biological filtration by harbouring the nitrifying bacteria that transform ammonia to nitrate.
Nitrate is soluble and this increases the growth of algae.
From the pumice, the water rises to the charcoal where the odour from the ammonia is absorbed.
Then it comes up to the white pebbles where the clarity is verifiable.
By the time it is leaving the bio-filtration chamber it still has nitrates so in the next chamber the team uses fish as a bio-indicator to test if the water is good enough for the fish.
“Fish tell us if our bio-filtration is functioning or not. If the fish is coming up for oxygen from the top, then that is a signal that our system is not working well. If the fish is swimming normally and at a considerable depth in the water, then it tells us that all is well,” said Sirikwa.
Not only have they recycled the water coming from the fish ponds, they are also using the waste water for growing fingerlings and for hydroponics to grow spinach. The nitrate chamber is used for hydroponics.
By the time the water is pumped back into the ponds it is nitrate-free. The system uses solar energy.
The team also has an app that links fish farmers to customers to eliminate the middle-man.
4. PLASTIC RECYCLING TRUCK
All over the world, people agree that plastic has been one of the biggest menace of our times.
Orbys System, a company based in Madrid, Spain, brought to the conference a circular economy truck model that is being used in La mancha, Madrid to recycle plastic.
The truck separates, plastic from other waste, cleans and crashes then melts it into a liquid.
The liquid is turned into a gas that is condensed to produce a liquid and a gas that is used to power the system.
The truck uses this energy to run its operations (does not need external sources of energy).
The truck, which is the size of a 40-foot container, can process 20,000 kilogrammes of waste every day, and the energy produced by the liquid plastic can be used as fuel or used to manufacture new plastics.
PET and PVC plastics which are more difficult to treat are sent into a secondary unit that converts them into a liquid.
At the end of the process a black residue is turned into activated carbon (or activated charcoal) used in industry.
5.A SECOND LIFE FOR E-WASTE
Developed countries ship many second-hand computers to the developing world. However, there is no collection system for these machines when their useful life has come to end.
Close the Gap – Brussels collects laptops and refurbishes them and gives them a second life in schools and universities where students can use them to gain the digital skills they need to be competitive in the market and shape their own future.
They have worked with the Waste Electrical Electronic and Equipment Centre (WEEE centre) in Nairobi, for the last ten years.
“Afterwards we make sure the machine gets picked up and gets pulled apart by the WEEE centre, who send the motherboards to Europe for recycling,” explained Bram Over, the project manager. They also make jewellery from the used computer parts.
6. HYACINTH CLOTHES
Like Kenya, Nigeria has been struggling with the hyacinth menace in its water bodies.
Through her company Mitmeth Upcycling, Achenyo Idachaba from Nigeria harvests the weed from water bodies and converts it into fibre that is then used to make clothes.
The weed is also used to make dining table mats, notepad casings and mirror sleeves among others.
In the United States, Qaal by Nimco Adam designs clothes from organic materials most of which are made from 100 per cent hemp or blended hemp with other organic fabrics sourced from America.
Why hemp? According to Ms Adam because it is organic and fast growing. She also makes clothes from the barks of trees.
Among the exhibitors was also Forests for Fashion, a producer of fabric from sustainably grown trees.
According to Leonie Meier, the consultant UNECE/FAO Forestry & timber Section, the timber is turned into pulp, then into fibre and then into fabric for clothes.
7. DIGITAL DNA MONITORING
Animals in the environment leave behind their DNA when they excrete, or leave other cells in the environment where they live.
Therefore, using water samples it is possible to monitor biodiversity in an area.
NatureMetrics, a company from the UK, brought a digital technique that uses an ordinary syringe and a small container that anybody can use to collect water samples and send them to the lab for analysis.
The simple and efficient procedure monitors biodiversity using DNA from water bodies, allowing largescale monitoring in a cheaper-than-usual manner.
“Monitoring can be done by anybody including local communities or citizen scientists or companies that want to monitor biodiversity to check what impact their developments are having on the environment,” said Dr Kat Bruce the CEO of the company.
The technology makes research easier , and makes it possible to determine biodiversity from the invisible bacteria to the larger mammals that drink at a watering hole.
The company plans to set up a lab in Kenya.