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Kenyan Entrepreneur Turns Invasive Weed Into Profit


An innovator at Kenya’s Lake Victoria has turned an invasion of water hyacinth into a business opportunity, making paper from the weed that he sells in local shops. The initiative is creating jobs and supporting environmental sustainability.

Michael Otieno began making paper from water hyacinth ten years ago. The flowering weed is a nuisance to fishermen. It depletes fish stocks, affecting thousands of livelihoods.

Known as the ‘paper man’ by locals, Otieno has perfected his daily routine. Every morning, he goes into Lake Victoria to search for raw material. Once the hyacinth is harvested, it is cut into small pieces before being boiled to soften it.

Otieno started his Takawiri Initiative to provide income and jobs for locals.

According to the World Bank, Lake Victoria supports around 40 million people in East Africa, with nearly half of those residents living on less than $1.25 a day.

Otieno now employs up to 30 people, though the business has its challenges.

“One - is technology; the machines we are using are locally fabricated, and, two, we also, it’s a capital-intensive project, therefore it needs a lot of resources,” Otieno says.

Edward Orato, a local artists, runs a curio shop in Kisumu city on the banks of Lake Victoria. Since he started using the hyacinth paper, he hasn’t looked back.

“I like the paper since it’s not expensive. It’s also easily available. As an artist, I think it has a unique texture. The fibers give my paintings an edge. ”

The Takawiri Initiative got a start-up $60,000 grant from a Kenyan government agency tasked with environmental research and sustainability promotion. Joshua M’Anampiu, a top official with the National Environment Trust Fund (NETFUND), says assistance on the ground-level is important.

“Definitely, we understand the scarcity of finance or the inability of finance to trickle down to the people who really need it and that is why NETFUND is there, to ensure that even though there’s a lot of funding that is there for climate change, it must trickle down to the grassroots, to the people who really need it,” M’Anampiu says.

For Otieno and his staff, the water hyacinth is proving to be a blessing in disguise.

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