From stuck on a lake to global engineering recognition

When the boat that Joseph Nguthiru and Charles Kinyua were travelling on got stuck in water hyacinth during a field trip on Kenya’s Lake Naivasha in June 2021, little did they know it would set them on the path to becoming global engineering award winners.

For the boat operator, getting entangled in hyacinth was an everyday occurrence, but for Nguthiru and Kinyua and their classmates from Egerton University in Kenya it was a scary ordeal that lasted for hours. Water hyacinth is an invasive weed that plagues many water bodies in Kenya and elsewhere in East Africa.

Nguthiru said they had no option but to wade through the hyacinth to safety.

“The boat’s motor got tangled up with the weed and was rendered useless. This meant we had to clear out the weed with our hands,” Nguthiru told University World News. “As we dragged ourselves through the hyacinth, we also wondered how one could get rid of them, and that’s when the idea came.”

They dubbed the resulting project HyaPak, which is aimed at helping to get rid of the hyacinth problem by using the weed as the raw material for producing biodegradable wrappers and plates that can, in turn, help control plastic pollution.

“Hyacinth causes a lot of problems, like [when] navigating through water bodies, disrupting hydroelectric power production, and hindering fishing in more than 50 countries across the globe,” Kinyua explained.

“Our original idea was to tackle the water hyacinth problem itself, but we later on thought, ‘Why not use one menace to solve another?’ ” Kinyua told University World News.

“Thus, for our final-year project, we decided that we would help clear out the weed by turning it into something of economic value.”

Weeds become seedling wrappers

At a tree-planting event to help conserve the Mau water catchment area, the two students noted that many plastic bags were being wasted after the seedlings were transplanted.

“This was our ‘Eureka!’ moment that saw us seek to transform the weeds into seedling wrappers that would easily biodegrade after three to six months of transplanting,” Nguthiru explained.

A lack of adequate finance was a major challenge, but they helped overcome this by using materials sourced within their school.

The project initially helped them bag the ICPAC Youth for Climate award at the East Africa Climate Action awards in November 2021, before eventually landing them a coveted World Engineering Day (WED) award in March 2022.

The WED hackathon was held virtually on 4 March this year and their project was ranked third globally after entries from Canada and the Philippines. Their global recognition came along with a cash prize of about US$1,000.

The WED is a global event held yearly by UNESCO and is aimed at boosting the status of engineers worldwide by enabling young innovators to showcase their projects and innovations that can help with sustainable development.

It encourages universities, industries, governments, media and communities to interact in a bid to come up with lasting solutions to engineering problems.

“We intend to use the prize money we got to get a patent for our project and part of it will also help fund another project that we are currently working on,” Nguthiru said.