Innovation of the Week: Turning an Invasive Species into a Livelihood

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In Kenya, for the over 5,000 people living in rural communities on or near its shore, Lake Victoria—the largest body of freshwater in Africa—is a life line. It is the main source of water for bathing, drinking, and cooking in the area and its fish populations provide both protein and income to families. “But the shores of Lake Victoria are choking,” says Shana Greene, founder and director of Village Volunteers, a Seattle-based organization that partners with rural communities around the world to create environmentally sustainable solutions for hunger and poverty.

Village Volunteers is helping local communities to fight back and turn a potentially devastating situation into a financial boon. (Photo credit: Village Volunteers)

“The shores of Lake Victoria are solid with water hyacinths,” continues Shana, and the invasive plant is having a disastrous effect on the wildlife and people who depend on it for survival. The water hyacinth originated in the Amazon and has rapidly spread through various tropical and sub-tropical regions throughout South America, Africa, and Asia, pushing out indigenous plants and fish.  The hyacinth form lush green carpets that warm the water’s temperature while simultaneously reducing sunlight, depleting oxygen levels and blocking access to the shallows, tangling fishing nets and trapping boats. The plants also make an ideal hiding ground for disease carrying snails and poisonous snakes. “Fish are an important source of protein for local communities,” says Shana, “and the warmer water harbors all sorts of diseases, making it less safe for drinking.”

As a result, Village Volunteers is helping local communities to fight back and turn a potentially devastating situation into a financial boon.

“Water hyacinth is actually a really great raw material for so many things,” says Shana. “We are helping communities in Kenya harvest it and use it to create tools to use in the home and to sell. We are using it to make fuel briquettes for cook fires and turning it into a very effective fertilizer.” Village Volunteers is also helping local entrepreneurs produce chairs, baskets, and other pieces of furniture that can be made by weaving together the tough stems and leaves of the hyacinths, as well as biodegradable sanitary napkins.

“The hyacinth invasion is an overwhelming problem,” says Shana, “but it is becoming a business. And by using only locally available materials and labor—oxen help to harvest the hyacinth, for example—the end result is largely self-sustaining.” And while the villages on the shore of the lake can’t eliminate the hyacinth all together, they are clearing it away from the immediate shores, helping to improve the quality of their immediate water supply, as well as habitats for the fish populations they depend on.

“We are helping farmers to not only improve their incomes and livelihoods, but also to make, at least a small difference on their local surroundings. They are turning a devastating situation into a life improving situation.”

To read more about innovations that improve water quality and livelihoods, see: Water Out of Thin Air, Getting Water to Crops, Access to Water Improves Life for Women and Children, Reducing Wastewater Contamination Starts with a Conversation, ECHOing a Need for Innovations and Using Dirt to Make Water Clean.

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