May 14th 2018 – Kisumu, Kenya
Author: Noah Kozminski
The Biosynth team hops on a matatu (local public transport vans) heading out to Nyakach, an electoral constituency at the edge of Lake Victoria, about an hour and half from the city of Kisumu. Dylan Haas, a member of the team, explains their objective: “Biosynth is aiming to use water hyacinth, an invasive aquatic species, to create a biodegradable plastic to benefit the local environment.” Seeking more information about local uses of the plant, this trip brings the team to meet a group of local women using hyacinth to create ropes and commodity items for sale in town.
The team arrives in Nyakach and is greeted by Julia, a founder of the group, who leads them back to her homestead. Welcomed inside, Julia’s son Daniel Atik leads the group in prayer before inviting them to sit. Daniel translates for Julia, interpreting her words from local Luo into English. “Right now, we are 30,” she says, explaining how the group has grown from only five members 15 years ago to benefit a larger community. “Everybody likes the job,” says Julia, and she personally cherishes the independence that comes with it. Using hyacinth to create rope and specialty items such as necklaces generates income for Julia and the rest of the group, creating new ways to benefit the local economy. “We came to change a disaster to an opportunity,” says Daniel. While the direct use of hyacinth is beneficial, the group also grows vegetables and farms fish to supplement their income.
Nyakach and other districts along the shores of Lake Victoria are primarily fishing communities, and the presence of hyacinth has resulted in many challenges. “This thing is a disaster. It is a menace to the state of Kenya,” Daniel says, reacting to how the invasive species has crippled fishing efforts in an already low-income area. Hyacinth floats on the water, making afflicted areas of the lake nearly impassible by boat, and greatly alters the aquatic ecosystem to the detriment of fish stock.
Hyacinth also causes many secondary issues in the area — the presence of the invasive species creates a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitos, drives out snakes by cooling water temperatures, and causes hippos to head for land, which make life difficult for fishermen and local farmers alike. This makes collecting the plant risky for the group, who have little access to safety equipment. Summer winds also push floating hyacinth around the lake, often to deep water where it is impossible to collect without a boat — a heavy cost for the group, who frequently must rent a vessel for harvesting.
The Biosynth team asks about the group’s ideas for the future, and their current limitations. While producing commodity goods is beneficial, Daniel says, production is not as stable as it could be. Research into using hyacinth to make paper products shows promise, but cannot be acted on without more funds. “We know more, but we cannot make. We cannot achieve.”
The day’s expedition brought a wealth of new information to the Biosynth team, but the most important was a very simple realization. “The biggest takeaway from today was that hyacinth is still a problem,” says Connor Cantalamessa, a team member. Before seeing the problems caused by the invasive species first hand, reports had made it seem like a diminishing issue. “Today, we were able to speak with people and hear how hyacinth is affecting them.”