Bioethanol for Refugees: A Startup’s Plan for Weeding Lake Victoria


Picture: CIST East Africa

Looking out from the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria, a green carpet of water hyacinth floats with the tides. The invasive weed clogs shorelines of Africa’s largest lake, preventing the passage of fishing vessels from the weed-choked bays to the deep water where they fish.

“Our business is greatly determined by how best we can access and navigate the waters of the lake,” says Kevin Ochieng, a 33-year-old part-time teacher and fisherman. “With this weed, we hardly have access to fishing grounds as well as beaches to offload our little catch.”

Mr. Ochieng owns fishing boats that crisscross the lake from Usenge Beach to Homa Bay. For years, the weed has critically affected his operations. Hyacinth is an aquatic floating plant native to South America that appeared on Lake Victoria in the 1990s. It now covers about 17,000 hectares on the Kenyan side of the lake. There may be some respite, however.

An energy social enterprise is keen to help, one truck at a time, by converting the aggressive water hyacinth into bio-ethanol that is sold as cooking fuel for refugees in Kenya.

CIST East Africa, based in the lakeside city of Kisumu, hires fishermen and their boats to harvest the weed from the landing bays the fishers use to access the lake, clearing paths to the deep waters where the fishing is best. Although limited in scope at the moment, the few cleared areas have seen a return of the fish. The startup has also been able to put fishermen to work who may otherwise have had little to do while the fish stock was reduced.

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