The 2017 first quarter has been filled with a whirlwind tour and a lot of refocusing.
In December I was promoted from strategic advisor to Trustee Board Member. My first task is to position CSTI as a Trust within the national innovation framework while staying close to the Kenya National Academy of Sciences mandate: "to cooperate and collaborate with the Government of Kenya, other scientific organizations and the general public in the mobilization of the scientific community in Kenya for the promotion of the scholarly application of all aspects of science and technology for national development."
We already had existing institutional partnerships with Kenya Industrial Research Institute's Research Technology and Innovation Department as well as Kenya Marine and Fisheries Institute in Kisumu. During first quarter 2017 we also developed an institutional partnership with the U.S. non-profit Ecologists Without Borders. These partnerships developed in response to a request for assistance with the water hyacinth plague that has been impeding lake transportation as well as negatively impacting the fisheries economy in Homa Bay County and Kisumu.
The water hyacinth plague is a perfect example of the ecological complexities arising from human activity that lead to climate change effects that revert back to human activity. The interaction between both effects can turn into a vicious cycle that spans decades. Water hyacinth is not native to Lake Victoria. Water hyacinth entered the Lake due to human activity. Human activity has also generated the accumulation of fertilizer runoff, human waste and industrial waste all of which are super growth foods for water hyacinth. The same human activity has increased deforestation which not only leads to runoffs and erosion, deforestation reduces soil health and rainfall. This leads to a reduction in both fisheries and agricultural capacity which increases poverty and health problems in an area that is already challenged.
You can hear more from KMFRI Kisumu Centre Director Dr Christopher Aura via this video
Root Causes - Human Activity
We had been receiving conflicting reports on the scope of the problem. We discovered part of the issue underlying differing reports is that water hyacinth mats tend to move around. Some locations have water hyacinth year round. Other areas have sporadic presence and when water hyacinth is absent, economic activity resumes. Here are some time lapse photos:
Kendu Bay Pier September 2016
Kendu Bay Pier March 2017
Rakwaro Beach is a location where the permanent water hyacinth presence has led to loss of the beach. Areas that used to be water are now solid land you can walk on.
Rakwaro Beach (what used to be a beach) March 2017
The pictures are evidence that the Rakwaro Beach level of infestation is beyond what can be handled by weevils. Chemicals are unlikely to make a real impact on solid soil, not to mention chemicals pose a hazard to fish and other aquatic species in the lake.
Pictures from Kisumu pier (what used to be a regional shipping port connecting Kenya to other East African countries) also show how economic activity has nearly frozen. The first picture shows an elevated view with the just part of the extent of the water hyacinth mat. The second picture zooms in on what is supposed to be a functioning pier. The third picture is the view at ground level.
Kisumu Pier March 2017
The cargo vessel is operational. However, the fuel cost and time delays from clear water to pier are significant. It takes a large cargo vessel approximately 8 hours to travel 6 nautical miles when the water hyacinth mat is present. We were told the experience is like trying to sail through a sponge. The cargo ship keeps bouncing back as it tries to get through. The harvester is still being commissioned (another source of rage in the community). Nature is definitely moving vastly faster than human responsiveness in this case.
Point in time snapshots do little to explain what normal activity should look like in these areas so we went to an area that has never been affected. Sori Bay remains a vibrant fishing community.
Sori Bay September 2016
Of course none of this documentation is meaningful to the communities that have been plagued by water hyacinth for decades. The infestation became noticeable in the mid 1990s. This means some residents in their mid 20s have never known a normal or useable lake while those old enough to remember otherwise have seen a quarter or half their life go by with no solution. More than a wee bit of rage erupts when we say we need more time to study the situation.
Climate Change & Eco-System Interdependence
As the problem was discussed, we realized a single intervention solution would not work. Biological control of water hyacinth is not effective if the water hyacinth keeps feeding on nutrients such as potassium, nitrogen, human and industrial waste that is flowing into the lake as run-off. A blue economy focused on fisheries cannot develop in contaminated waters. There is not enough fish to sell and sometimes not enough fish to eat. Lack of rainfall and degraded soil are leading to an abandonment of agriculture in favor of stone quarrying. Stone quarrying generates money to buy things but there is a shortage of food because agricultural activity is diminishing. The degradation cycle has locked into a zero sum game.
A couple of videos from other organizations do a very good job in explaining the complexities and interdependencies:
EU Explanation of Blue Economy and Cascading Systemic Business Models
As you saw in the above video, the water management problem starts on land. Our talks with the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) as well as Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) at the Karura and Ligodho stations alerted us to the fact that deforestation in the Nyanza region (which surrounds Lake Victoria) is at ecologically dangerous levels. Lack of knowledge is not the issue. KEFRI has made information readily accessible as evidenced by this Kenya tree planting guide co-published with Biovision. NEMA has a whole website dedicated to climate change information and planning. Root causes in this case are problematic human behaviours:
Excessive cutting of trees for use as firewood and charcoal;
A preference for word-of-mouth information instead of seeking the advise of ecological professionals (e.g. my friend told me these trees, grass and plants are good - of course when problems occur it is everyone else's fault including "bad soil");
The bureaucratic challenges of getting funding via clean development mechanisms
Most importantly, communication barriers (even though drought and increasing heat directly threaten human survival, actionable climate adaptation strategies do not go viral on WhatsApp in the same manner as celebrity or political gossip)
Perhaps what is lacking is evidence to convince people that paying attention to calls for action does make a positive impact on both climate and economic well being. Here is an example from Singapore which has spent the past 50 years focusing on using green space as a mechanism to attract foreign investment. Singapore is now moving even further ahead by developing plans to convert urban cities into urban forests (aka biophilic cities).
An aspirational advantage of a biophilic city is that we no longer have to choose between beautiful rural landscapes and urban concrete jungles. Benefits relating to the above mentioned problems are as follows:
We move food production closer to consumer markets and the same applies for natural raw materials. This means consumers can immediately see when their demand for firewood has caused deforestation. There is no need to wait for an investigative reporter to go capture images of desolation. Industry is also closer to nature so the impact of polluting practices is immediately visible.
The rural agricultural/urban technology divide is erased. There are jobs in urban areas for those with high agricultural skills but little formal schooling. Information dissemination is also quicker in urban cores so field workers spend less time traveling to deliver training and materials.
Clean Development Mechanisms are still largely not understood. People know how to trade company stocks but what is this about trading green bonds or carbon credits? Also, money is concentrated in urban centers. Kenya has just launched a mobile platform for trading green bonds (M-Akiba). If we plan things carefully, a rural adoption program can be developed via which those in urban areas use a portion of their green bond profits to support those in rural areas.
The need to translate these ideas into viral gossip media is something we most definitely are challenged with. Solution TBD (to be determined)...
We must also learn from nature.
CSTI's Strategic Focus
Natural eco-system interdependence means the output of one species becomes the input of another species (e.g. flowers give pollen, bees use pollen to make honey, people eat honey). In manufacturing this is called by-product synergy and in business this is called circular economy.
Here is an explanatory video designed to train European SMEs on how to switch to sustainable business practices:
The challenge ahead lies in translating all of this inter-related and complex information into digestible information that Kenyan SMEs can use to adapt and grow. This is the role of CSTI.
We would like to start by referencing the Kenya Climate Innovation Center (KCIC) as a one-stop-shop business accelerator for sustainability focused businesses.
CSTI's role is focused on the scientific R&D space (proof of concept, technical feasibility, prototype development, environmental scanning, scientific downscaling to locally appropriate levels). Our specialty areas are biochemistry (green house gas emissions, agrochemicals, bioplastics, biosurfactants, natural industrial materials) and biotechnology (light manufacturing, 3D printing, low tech innovation such as hand build biodigesters, rural scale/community enterprises in eco-payment services).
We do not work alone in this regard. We have the collaboration of Economatics Consultants Ltd., Maker Lab at University of Nairobi, Maseno University, University of Nairobi Chemistry Department, Homa Bay County Government, and, successful social entrepreneurs.
Be sure to stay tuned for updates...