JKUAT Alumnus and Innovator Turns Water Hyacinth into Biofuel

Eric displays the prize award at the Climate Launchpad National finals at Strathmore.

Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology Alumnus, and Innovator, Eric Gathirwa Kariuki, has developed a biofuel innovation that utilizes the water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), converting it into a bioethanol product that can be used as cooking fuel in households.

Eric Kariuki, who graduated in 2018, with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Biotechnology, at JKUAT, developed an interest in renewable energy and biofuels while on a visit to the Lake Victoria region, sometime back.

“I came face to face with the effect of the water hyacinth on the local environment in Lake Victoria region and I asked myself what I could do to turn the water hyacinth menace into something useful, said Kariuki during an interview last week, when he visited JKUAT and met the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Victoria Wambui Ngumi.

“I designed the cooking fuel innovation from water hyacinth weed as an undergraduate project. The results were promising. After consulting my supervisors, Dr. Joel Bargul and Dr. Christine Bii,  I decided to pursue the patent process through the JKUAT Directorate of Intellectual Property Management and University Liaison (DIPUIL),” Eric stated.

Prof. Ngumi (left), during discussions with Eric when he paid a courtesy call on the VC.

The Sustainable Blue Economy conference held in Nairobi, November 2018 provided an opportunity for Eric to participate and showcase his innovation  to potential investors in the marine and water related areas.

 “I was encouraged to participate and thereafter, I applied for Climate Change Launchpad competition, facilitated by the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre at Strathmore University.”

He participated in the 3 series of the competition and made it to the national finals where he emerged position three (3) in Kenya.

“I got sponsored for the Global competition in Edinburgh, Scotland in  November 2018” and made it to the top 16. Consequently, the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre agreed to incubate my project, “Aqua ethanol technologies,” Eric revealed.

Kelvin, another alumnus of JKUAT, who studied Procurement and Contract Management, and currently a Warehouse Assistant at Aramex Logistics, “was instrumental in the development of the business and management aspects of Aquaethanol Technologies, as well as   a sustainable business model,” Eric says, adding, “When I enrolled for Climate Launchpad, I teamed up with him as my partner. His task was to decipher the business aspects while I handled technical aspects.”

Eric further explains: “I figured out that I required assistance for the business aspects of this innovation if it was ever going to get to market, and he was the right person for the job.”

Aquaethanol project is basically the production of bioethanol cooking fuel by harnessing the water hyacinth weed that has caused a lot of harm to the lake region’s aquatic economic activities including water transport, and fishing, among many others.

Last year, Eric was selected to join the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship programme as one of the promising entrepreneurs from Kenya. The training entailed the development of a viable product ready for commercialization.

The postgraduate student who is pursuing Masters in Science in Bioinformatics at Makerere University on a scholarship, saysI am in the process of developing other viable products.”

Eric pitching his idea during the Climate Launchpad Theme Awards (Sustainable Energy).

What inspires Eric? “Problems inspire me. Whenever I encounter problems, I do what I can within my capacity to make a change,” he states.

Citing Dr.  Bargul in the Department of Biochemistry, College of Health Sciences, Eric adds, that his role model are his mentors.

The innovator has a special message to students at JKUAT: “It is okay to think differently. Most graduates in Biochemistry dream to go to Kemri, or to be Medical reps. Being odd shapes your future. Think differently,” he advises his peers.

Asked about his plans for the long term, Eric confidently avers: “I see myself serving the society in whatever capacity; providing solutions to challenges and problems.”

Eric went who attended Njiiri School in Murang’a, between 2010 and 2013, has high regard for the training he received at JKUAT. “The undergraduate training received in the department of Biochemistry was very intensive and lecturers are actively engaged in research beyond JKUAT. They motivated us to work hard.”

The Vice Chancellor commended Eric for his outstanding work as a young and promising innovator, stating that his innovation and recognition demonstrated the commitment of JKUAT professors and researchers who are doing a great job in nurturing a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs for the country and the region.

Eric with colleagues who made it to the finalists top 16 teams at Edinburgh, Scotland.

“Eric has done so well. We are proud of him as JKUAT. We are confident he will go very far,” the Vice Chancellor said during the courtesy call brief meeting.

The bioethanol cooking fuel innovation which has been patented, is poised to sustainably address the water hyacinth problem on one hand, while at the same time generating income from bioethanol as well as providing a cheaper alternative source of clean energy for Kenyan households, thus reducing dependency on fossil fuels like paraffin commonly used for cooking by low income populations.

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