Moola for Amanzi

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The report below is adapted from the WaterNetwork website. Merah Mas founder, Bernelle Verster was the main organiser of this initiative. The competition, which was part of a bigger initiative – the Dutch-SA water partnership – aimed to generate high quality investment proposals addressing water and sanitation issues and build awareness in the public eye, the water sector and sectors outside conventional water-related industries, so that business can go hand in hand with access to clean and affordable water.

World Water Week 20-23 March 2011 in Cape Town, South Africa


the battle of concepts in the South African Water sector

A competition for innovative solutions in the South African Water sector.

The Moola for Amanzi competition challenged South African students and young professionals to send in their best ideas for the South African water sector. The competition was launched at the Small Wastewater Treatment conference held in East London in November 2010, coinciding with the launch of the Waternetwork webportal ( Eighteen promising proposals were sent in before the deadline was reached on February 1st 2011. The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and a group of both Dutch and South African water experts selected the top 5 best proposals. These selected teams were invited to pitch their proposal and present their innovative and creative ideas at the World Water Week in Cape Town. There they presented on the main stage in front of a professional jury and in front of all UN delegates, NWP and WISA members, with special guests of honor His Royal Highness Willem Alexander Prince of Orange and the Deputy Minister of Department of Water Affairs.

The day before the final, 20 March, all finalists were invited by Royal Haskoning to participate in a training, which gave them tools to set up their business and improve their project management and presentation skills. The training took place in the CTICC. Berte Simons, Director Advisory Group Royal Haskoning enthusiastically provided the extensive and very useful training to the teams, even spending close to a full day with the finalists preparing them for the next day’s final.

Monday 21 March the Moola for Amanzi final kicked off at the main stage of the UN exhibition. The visitors of the UN World Water Day and local and international press shows impressive interest in the finals. This increased the pressure, as the teams had to present to a larger audience than anticipated. Special guests in the audience, His Royal Highness Willem Alexander Prince of Orange and the Deputy Minister of Department of Water Affairs made this event even more important. The final was presented by Bernelle Verster of the Young Water Professionals and proudly presented as Water Maverick. She assisted with organizing the Moola for Amanzi competition from the start which has definitely contributed to a successfully event. The jury of independent experts consisted of; Professor George Ekama of UCT, Doug Sanyahumbi of the Technology and Innovation Agency, Dirk Janssen the UN Youth Representative for the Netherlands and Fransje van der Marel of McKinsey.

All teams had 2 minutes to pitch their idea after which the jury posed a scale of questions about their business idea for a maximum of 5 minutes. As all members of the jury had questions about topics from their own field of expertise, the questions were very diverse. As the teams were well trained and knew their plans inside out, they could answer most questions to the satisfaction of the members of the jury.

For the jury it was difficult to choose the best and most innovative idea. After a short break where the audience enjoyed sponsored drinks by Heineken at the NWP-WISA stand, the jury came with a decision. The Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands handed out the prices to the 3 winning teams. After the award ceremony there was a photo opportunity together with His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange, the Ambassador and the winning teams. The Prince of Orange also spoke to the 3 teams and shared his enthusiasm about their ideas.

The third place, a price of 3000 Euro was won by Modern Community Solutions. Their plan is based on the idea of re-using urine as fertilizers and the company intends to buy the urine from people from informal settlements.

The second place, a price of 7000 Euro was won by Food & Trees for Africa. This is an existing organization that has already successful projects. They aim to re-use urine from urine diversion toilets and will use it to maintain the local vegetable gardens in poor communities and at rural schools.

The first place, a price of 15.000 Euro was won by People’s Power Africa; this is an existing small company that is focused on a green hub for re-use of processed waste and integrated biogas sanitation system for rural schools.

Water Genomics laboratory and Water Polymers-SA were the other two winning concepts.

The winning teams were encouraged to frequently report about their progress in the coming year to the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Pretoria. They also presented their progress at the Young Water Professional conference, July 2011 and at WISA 2012 they presented their final results which have been achieved with the investment of the prize money.

All teams have been linked to a Dutch Water organization that will advise them on their future steps. There are already two organizations that have showed great interest in extending their partnership in working together with the teams in the future.

The Moola for Amanzi competition generated a lot of media attention. Not only South African newspapers wrote about it, it even made the 7 o’clock news at SABC news.

Want to know more about the Moola for Amanzi competition?

Here is more background information:

“Moola for Amanzi” is a business concept competition that helps kick-start Small and Medium sized Entrepreneurs in the water and sanitation sector in South Africa.

Moola for Amanzi aims to uncover business plans that bring effective and efficient solutions to water & sanitation issues in South Africa. The Challenge is open to South African SMEs or students with a high growth and/or innovative business plan that combines job creation and profits in the business of drinking water, irrigation, (waste-) water treatment, and sanitation.

One aim is to ensure high quality investment proposals addressing water and sanitation issues in South Africa in collaboration with Dutch organizations. Another benefit of this initiative is awareness creation in the sector, the business community and the general public that business and ‘access to clean and affordable water’ can go hand in hand.

The Water Institute of Southern Africa (WISA) and the Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP) have signed a letter of intention in order to strengthen cooperation and increase knowledge exchange between the Dutch and South African Water sectors. One part of this cooperation is this battle of concepts. From the South African side it is not only organized by WISA but in close collaboration with the Young Water Professionals. From the Netherlands side, the NWP is working closely together with the Netherlands Embassy in Pretoria. The Netherlands Embassy is also the sponsor of the battle.

Moola in the news:



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WaterBus = Schools Water Awareness and Education Project.

What started as a WISA Young Water Professional site visit to places where these professionals are likely to work in, ended up as a schools initiative, a marketing stunt and a test run for what promises to be a national umbrella initiative.

On Friday, 8 October 2010 a group of students from UCT, CPUT, UWC and SUN, the four Universities of the Western Cape, visited Bridgehouse School (Franschhoek) and Simondium Primary to do an experiential learning experience, followed by a technical site visit to Wemmershoek Wastewater Treatment Works, the Bergriver dam and a groundwater monitoring site close by. It was as much a technical learning trip as a test run for the WaterBus – to see how we can expose all children in South Africa to Water Awareness and Education.

The goal of this WaterBus tour was to:
Give the WaterBus idea a testrun
Improve students’ understanding of why talking to the public is important
Create awareness among students and school learners about the water cycle, why we need to clean (and pay) for both purifying water and cleaning wastewater
Create awareness of the water industry among the public, especially school learners
Give back to society, make friends and build networks across industries and backgrounds
Initiate routes to stimulate critical thinking and awareness in the public mind at large
The bigger picture:
If you ask kids “What is the most amazing thing about water?”, what answers will you get? How can we use these answers to combine water and science education with ‘Water as a Lifestyle’:

Combine the things that make geeks rock with the stuff that makes society roll
In short, have fun, and only realise you learnt a heck of a lot when you’re back in class. There are more than 26 000 schools in South Africa. How do we tackle them all?

Browse the blog to find out what worked, what didn’t and what’s happening now.
WaterBus in the news: Supernews
Partners of the day: World Water Monitoring Day, a global educational outreach program that aims to build public awareness and involvement in protecting water resources by empowering citizens to carry out basic monitoring of local water sources.


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What a week. It started with massive depression post TEDxCapeTown 2012 and it all was just getting too much, too big, too fast. It was so big that I couldn’t keep it all in my head at the same time. I was grumpy, anti-social, sick and picking fights everywhere. It was also the first week of August, and the time of truth: the rumour created by an interview and beach photo-shoot in June may now result in The Article. I didn’t really believe it; the interview was so informal, a beach photo-shoot where I’m not wearing a bikini but a labcoat too off-the-wall, the looks of disbelief on the CNBC Africa staff during a TEDxCapeTown media brainstorm, when we let slip that I might be featured in the August issue too great. I’m too young, not rich, and really, guys, it’s shit. Who cares.

I walked up to the magazine stand with trepidation, only managing a faint grin at the politics and business section being right next to the adult section. The stack of Forbes mags – special edition for Women’s month – nestled snugly against Playboy or similar. On the boundary – adult entertainment or business? I nervously took a copy, should I just buy it and deal with the disappointment at home? No, impatience wins again, and I page through it, not really sure what to look for. Mamphela is listed on the cover, boding well – she seems to accompany this journey; my taliswoman.

I feel like I could just as well have one of those adult mags in hand: my ears are hot and I’m trembling. As I page, I observe: there’s big names in here. In a small way, I’m starting to wander in their ranks. I don’t know if I want to be in it or not. And then … there it is, page 96. I stand in disbelief as my knees threaten to buckle. This is actually real. This mag goes into Africa and I’m in it. Affirmation overload. I text my close friends, trying to not jump up and out, and the smile hurts my cheeks.


Glamorous Gumboots!

It was fitting that I bought the magazine en route to buying things for setting up Roberta and Agnes at the Athlone Wastewater Treatment Works (WWTW) – aka the sewage works. Dealing with issues like hair clogging up my fishpond pump – that I had to go buy three times as it kept being too small. Not a proper engineer, this one. But rapid prototyping marries trail and error, spawns design thinking and it’s good. It’s dirty and it’s real and the affirmation is there too.

This article gives me unadulterated, bursting pride. I don’t feel that I deserve it, but man, how proud. I think it is well written and strikes exactly the right tone. It doesn’t promise miracles, and covers a myriad of complex issues comfortably. It mentions the PhD, Biomimicry and ShackLabs, all in one.

It’s interesting, and hopefully prophetic, that I’m featured in a magazine celebrating financial wealth when I’m not making any money at all yet, and probably won’t make much ever. Wealthy, yes, financially, not so much. But I am growing more confident that we bunch of mavericks are disrupting the way business is done in a real, immediate, massive way. And we’re marketing it well.

Back at the plant I ditched the mag and set Agnes up, temperamental chick that she is, but Roberta is patiently humming away already, in the threat of imminent rain (Pics coming soon).

Athlone humour: too many things to be labeled,

too few colours.

It felt so real, so right, so ‘you-are-in-the-place-you’re-meant-to-be’, fiddling around on site, on a cold, overcast Cape Town winter’s day. Feeling a little bit lonely, with the inevitable frustration of practice meeting theory and with no one to ask, each time I would get a bit disheartened, looking at the slivers of mountain visible through the clouds (almost biblical), I would think ‘Get through this, you don’t get into Forbes by fluffing!’

This is the edit I have of the doc, I tried to correct it to the final version, but I might have missed stuff – just go buy the mag for the correct version, yeah? Then you can sommer check out the other kief people too. 😉

Forbes article in context – at Athlone WWTW, Roberta is already in position, under the mag, out of harm’s way in the rusty cage, Agnes’s cabinet is about to be set up right behind it.



– by Sumitra Nydoo

It’s not often you find young women sorting through crap, 31-year-old Bernelle Verster is and she’s making a career of it. Raised in Johannesburg, South Africa [damn, they edited out Benoni], Verster is studying for her PhD in bioprocess engineering at the University of Cape Town. She specializes in sifting through wastewater.

“I look for the nutrients in the sewage”, says Verster.

And who would think that there are actually any nutrients in latrine water. Verster of course!

She’s been thinking about this since she was 12. She first realized it was possible whilst doing her Masters in the United Kingdom in 2005. As she explains this very technical process, the water, so to speak, is looking less murky. When waste matter enters the sewer system it flows through the various purification processes. On its way, it passes through a few units where most of the gunk is held back – this becomes biosolids. Now only dissolved waste continues to flow through, and goes through a reactor, or ‘house’ as Verster calls it. Micro-organisms or ‘tiny bugs’ from various origins like your gut, the soil and food matter, attach themselves to the walls of this ‘house’.

She tries to break it down for me in colourful ways.

“It’s like a soup, and the bacteria, the fungi and small animals feed off the contents”.

Verster then scrapes off the bacteria ‘bugs’, which formed a slimy white substance. This slime is processed and dried. Once harvested, it can then be used in various products from cleaning to soil improvements, hydrogels – which are used in diapers – and, someday, perhaps even bioplastics in the textile industry.

For now, Bernelle aims to put it back into the water to further purify the same water that produced it. This process is especially important to Verster because it’s inexpensive and needs no transport. Her research is focused on producing green products cheaply. The biosolids, removed in the beginning of the process, can also be used to produce enough biogas to power the treatment plant, making the entire process even more cost-effective. Some of the gas has been used in trial projects in South Africa to power stoves and industrial ovens and is also widely used around the world.

“This is a natural source, I take the bugs and set them to work again – they’re less abrasive than some of the harsh products currently being used in water purification. I want to use what we have already to make something else, something new and exciting,” she adds.

Verster is enthusiastic about what she’s doing and is using her skills to empower others. A few years back, she won the regional leg of an entrepreneurship competition run by the South African National Innovation Fund. Taking part in the competition gave her an insight into the business world. “I learnt the basics about starting a business, how to run it and how to market it.”

She is now using the knowledge to raise awareness about her PhD, biology, science, engineering and the processing of raw sewage to produce products which can alleviate some of the issues facing South Africa. As the Green Drop Report, an evaluation of treatment works in South Africa, states: “Adequate wastewater treatment is the first barrier in a multi barrier system of ensuring safe drinking water quality.”

Water is already being bioprocessed in South Africa – in fact, the country leads the world in biological nutrient removal. The treated water is being used by large businesses which use water for production and manufacturing and to water golf courses. But there’s still a long way to go before the water can meet government standards.

“Everyone wants to go green, but going green is often an expensive exercise. Here we’ve found a way to go green cheaply. Why waste the waste when we can use it,” says Verster.

Water bioprocessing has the ability to evolve into a multibillion rand industry, but needs significant investment, she adds.

Verster and her friends have started a learn-on-the-run entrepreneurship program, showcasing good ideas and building business skills through real-world interdisciplinary projects.

“We want people to start talking about this process, so we teach students how to market the science, and make business sense out of it. Students often have technical expertise but they don’t know how to tell the public about it,” she says.

“The reality is that water is a scarce resource – it is recycled in every sense, there’s no new source of water from the time of the dinosaurs. It’s the same water that comes from the oceans, goes into rivers, ends up in the soil and back in the taps. If we pollute it in one place, one day those bad things are everywhere, even inside you. It’s everyone’s job to keep our water safe.”

True to her vision, Verster wants to encourage entrepreneurs to sell the idea, and generate revenue without harming the environment. She wants to develop entrepreneurs who build ecosystems not empires; who work with the big picture and not in spite of it; who see nature as their model, measure and mentor. She wants entrepreneurs who regard money as a tool in the larger process. Her belief is that the way we do business is about to change in a fundamental way.

[edited out: Businesses will shortly not just look at making profits from their processes, but also look towards the bigger picture, and contribute to improving social and environmental process through their core operation.]

Bernelle Verster in Forbes Africa, August 2012 issue.

Tame is not sustainable

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A talk I gave at Green Drinks: Bernelle Verster, 18 September 2011. It’s still a favourite.


Creating Community  -what a bioprocess engineer is learning about life, tameness and our attempts at ‘sustainability’.


Bernelle believes an integrated approach to education, waste management (a subsection of ‘sustainability’) and economic viability is achievable. As curator of TEDxCapeTown, she enjoys creating cooperative relationships between entrepreneurs, philosophers, creatives, academics and other beautiful people and exposing them to Ideas Worth Spreading. Together with public participation events like TEDx, she believes social entrepreneurship can be used to create positive change in the paradigms prevalent in society today.

Bernelle is for love of water. She is particularly interested in the resources-in-transition (otherwise known as waste) in ‘dirty’ water and is working hard to create ‘wastewater biorefineries’. She is currently doing her PhD at the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER) at the University of Cape Town, rethinking the engineering industry with the help of Biomimicry. She is known as the Water Maverick. : approx 16 min (150words/min)


Firstly, thanks to Helene Smit, Candice Pelser and Justin Beswick for the discussions that are contained in this presentation. Specifically, Helene for the concept of ‘Beneath, Between and Beyond’ and Candice for the closing phrase. I also draw from practically all the presentations at TEDxCapeTown held in April this year. Opinions, misunderstandings and errors expressed are my own.

(numbers refers to clicks on prezi that can be accessed here: (16MB)



“To understand wildness is to discover the thread that binds us to all living things.” – Ian McCallum

My story doesn’t start here, but it has a special relevance to the path that I am on at the moment, and I would like to share it with you for a while.

2.start: big word TAME

prelude: sustainable – if a relationship is ‘sustainable’ I’d rather get out, thanks. A better term for me is dynamic non-equilibrium, but for the purposes of familiarity, I’ll stick with sustainable, in the fuzzy ‚’everything will be OK’ definition.

3.tame – definition


easier to control



opposite of neo-anarchy?


4.Ian MacCullum poem

Anthony Turton: ‘we have to uncivilize known civilization by accepting the fact that we are part of Nature, and not the masters and owners of Nature that Rene Descartes described in his famous Discourse on Methods, published in 1637.’

I like the word, fierce

– the way it aligns itself with

nakedness and solitude:

a fierce nakedness…

a fierce solitude…

And I like the way it holds the word – fire.

I like the word,fire

the way it ignites

the cutting edge of poetry

refusing to be nothing less than

a fiery edge…

a fiery tongue…

And I like the way it is linked

to the word, wildness.

I like the word,wild

how it weaves its way

between yes and no,

how it announces itself as

a wild anger…

a wild joy…

And I like the way it nurtures

the word, fierce.

I like the word, fierce –

~ Ian McCallum

5. nakedness and solitude: a fierce nakedness…

I chose to work in water because I was getting a bit paranoid that we’re heading into some rough times (I still am), and I thought, if it all goes bottoms up, where are we most naked? It didn’t take long to figure out that we need clean water, and my skill set complemented this nicely. I also love what I do. Once I was in the field, I also realized that the water industry at large is incredibly vulnerable. We have more water to clean and more contaminants to take out of it, but less space, less time and less money to do it in. It is also not a well-supported industry, and is fraught with politics. Add to that, it is an incredibly conservative industry with very little in the way of sustainable business models. I don’t want to talk about this today, but this places what I try to do into context.

“The relationship is built over time with small interactions that gather weight within us.”

6.the way it ignites: PGA

My research is focused on producing a biopolymer – polyglutamic acid, PGA, (the polymer form of the flavourant MSG, or mono-sodium glutamate, or, mono-glutamic acid) from very dilute, dirty water. This polymer is the same gloopy stuff found in the Japanese foodnatto. PGA can be used for high volume applications such as hydrogels, which could be used in biodegradable, disposable baby nappies; flocculants, a replacement for the alum chemicals currently used in cleaning water, as well as low volume, very high value food and medical applications – like the natto foodstuff, food flavourant, the stuff that makes cosmetics feel so silky and gelly-like, and medical sutures.

The big problem with the biological version of these products is that it is too expensive to produce at scale. So while it may be environmentally sustainable, economic sustainability is still poor. So my research is focused on producing it cheaply. The main costs in bioprocesses are the raw material, as well as the energy involved. This energy mainly goes in preparing the process: most of these processes occur in a sterile environment, and cleaning up afterwards. Other costs are purification and product formulation. Many engineering processes choose off-the-shelf ways of producing something, and only think about dealing with how to clean it up afterwards. Developing the process as a whole, with the units taking care of each other is still quite novel, but it’s happening.

I’m the type of person who wants it all, wants it all to be perfect, and want to invest the minimum amount of blood, sweat and tears to get it there. So I went looking for an abundant raw material that no one wants, and would preferably pay me to get rid of it. I found two things – glycerol waste from biodiesel production, and sewage.

7. granule

Sewage, or wastewater, is generally very dilute. It’s flows and concentrations changes the whole time and there are invariably things in that are toxic to my bacteria. I have to develop a process that doesn’t need controlled, predictable conditions, but still produces the product you want. This is like saying you want the same productivity a monoculture cropland full of wheat can give, from an untended field of weeds next door. Likely? Not always, but you might be surprised to find, that it can be. What we need to learn to do, however, is to give up control, quiet our cleverness and work with Nature – the principles behind Biomimicry.

Two examples:

  1. The Land Institute – Wes Jackson and Jon Piper has shown that they can get similar yields from ‘prairie crops’ – herbaceous, perennial seed bearing plants – than monocrops, (Biomimicry book by Janine Benyus, p 11- 25, roughly).
  2. Relevant to my research, the concept of Microbial Community Engineering, work done by Mark van Loosdrecht and Robbert Kleerebezem at TU Delft, the Netherlands. I first started thinking about going wild when I read about Biomimicry, and when I visited Mark’s group in June this year, I was sold. I’m going wild.

This granule you see here, measuring a bit less than 1 mm across, is the basis of Mark’s technology, called aerobic granular sludge, which I abbreviate into AGS, and if you see my facebook going on about Agnes, this is she. Sortof. I can carry on forever about this technology, and if you’re keen I’ll go on a bit after the talk.


I want to read you something from an academic article, written by Zdena Palkova in 2004:

“Microorganisms naturally grow in conditions that are far from optimal, which causes them to become organized into multicellular communities that are better protected against the harmful environment. Moreover, this multicellular existence allows individual cells to differentiate and acquire specific properties, such as forming resistant spores, which benefit the whole population. The relocation of natural microorganisms to the laboratory can result in their adaptation to these favourable conditions, which is accompanied by complex changes that include the repression of some protective mechanisms that are essential in nature. Laboratory microorganisms that have been cultured for long periods under optimized conditions might therefore differ markedly from those that exist in natural ecosystems.”

I take two things from this:

  1. Much of what we know, scientifically, are based on conditions that are entirely irrelevant to nature. For environmental biotechnology, like bioremediation and wastewater treatment, this is important. Question everything.
  2. These bugs sound like humans. We don’t do so well on our own. It’s not natural. It’s fine when we’re handed everything on a plate. But those times are over, (and thank goodness, it was dull.)

I’ve cheated a little with the wild vs lab picture here, I couldn’t find a good picture of tame vs wild Bacillus. These are Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast used in brewing beer, so here’s to you, SAB! [they sponsored the evening]

Apart from being tougher and more able to survive, the reason why I want wild Bacillus is that the PGA is found in these strands that bind the bacteria together, and they are less prevalent in the tame strains.

Not all wild Bacillus strains produce PGA, and the ones who do have noticeable presence, or even dominance in a stressed environment, like oil fields, very salty places like the salt lakes in Kenya and heavy metal contaminated rivers. This suggests that PGA fulfills an ecological function that gives these bacteria selective advantage. It is likely also to be a carbon and nitrogen storage compound too. This is important in the dynamic environment of wastewater biorefineries. back to granule

At the moment I am developing a reactor system that favours my organism, a bacterium called Bacillus, to produce this product PGA, in a non-sterile environment. I am basing it on what we know already from wastewater treatment, using Mark’s concept of designing processes based on enrichment cultures, where the desired product must also have a role in microbial ecology.

To this selective reactor system I am adding the concept of product recovery -designing the system to take the purification of the product into account from the beginning. We call this ‘wastewater biorefineries’. This bacterium already occurs in wastewater, and I will not modify it any way. In fact, I don’t even care if my bacterium survives. I want a bug in my reactor system that is happy producing PGA as dirty water flows by. I am engineering its environment so that it is happier than the other bugs, but not excluding their presence, because they have value too – specifically with regards to complete nutrient removal (to give a stable and robust reactor system).

10. click back to WWTW

My process is a small cog in this bigger system. However well it works, it will still need significant investment, and operator training, and it won’t work so well if we dump chemicals in the water the way we currently do. The bigger system needs work, and the number one tool to achieve this is public awareness, and working together. Technology is awesome, and fun, but it is a small part of the bigger picture. No one person, but each one of us TOGETHER can save us. Enter TEDx.

11.TEDxCapeTown: Be Water My Friend

I decided to do a TEDx event because I was faced with a very specific challenge: How to get people outside of the water industry interested in the water industry – how to make innovation happen outside of the boundaries of any specific (e.g. the water) industry. I needed the public to be aware of the crisis without being paralysed by it.

The theme ‘Be Water My Friend’ – a quote from Bruce Lee – pulled water slightly out of context and drew in the qualities of water, especially with regards to entrepreneurship. A little bit of give and take. Never giving up, but going with the flow; being adaptable. In celebration of Water, TEDxCapeTown took its inspiration of technology, entertainment and design from water. Water is life. Life adapts and evolves, and Life creates conditions conducive to life. To have a successful business, lifestyle or philosophy, we need to create conditions conducive to our own efforts, without compromising those around us.

The event was a phenomenal success. This quote from Lise Pretorius, one of our speakers, sums it up for me: “New, fresh ideas from grassroots of society, tackling the biggest problems in society – technological or social. Everyone comes here to think about innovation – be it ideas, ways of thinking or physical things. It shows there a shift in the way people are thinking, [because] the traditional economic model no longer really applies anymore.”

12. giraffes

Water is not enough. Having successfully run TEDxCapeTown in April earlier this year, we were frustrated by the lack of diversity in the crowd, and the limited reach the event had. To maximise the potential that TEDx events can have on a broader community, we have decided to introduce the concept of TEDx to one of our communities that has less access to such opportunities. TEDxMfuleni happened last Thursday, themed ‘Creative Community’. Ultimately, the goal is to spark off a number of these events in all sorts of communities across the Cape Town metropolis.

13. a wild joy… play.

Eventually, we want to develop a value system – a self-organising principle – to allow people from all backgrounds to take collective action to achieve a deep connection with themselves, each other and Nature. This must happen in business, in our private lives, in governance, in every aspect of our lives.

This wish influenced our decision on the theme for 2012. It had to be really broad, wide and as encompassing as life itself. And yet, it still has to be FUN.

14. definition of play.

The theme for TEDxCapeTown 2012 is ‘What we Play is life’.

There are many many connotations to the word play – both positive and negative. Abraham Maslow mentions that ‘Almost all creativity involves purposeful play’. I put the play bit here because this looks like a music note to me. And seeing that we’re busy with the Rugby World Cup: Life is a team sport, let’s play it.


I want to end with another poem, or a part of it. It’s an excerpt from MILKWEED by James Wright. I printed it on my first set of business cards, many years ago. And, while this is not the end of my journey, I feel that, while I did not know then what attracted me to this poem, now I have come full circle. We are part of nature, it loves us. The time is ready to love ourselves and acknowledge that nature loves us too, if we’ll let it. We need to let go a little, go with the flow, embrace non-equilibrium, become a bit more wild, to become ‘sustainable’.

I look down now. It is all changed.

Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for

Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes

Loving me in secret.

16.end: big words TAME IS NOT SUSTAINABLE

thank you


Rickety Bridge

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The transcript of the talk I gave at the SA Geography teachers conference, on 24 September 2014.

The title, roughly, is Permaculture, water and the landscape: the connectedness of things

The attendees made for a lovely audience, so much laughing in all the right places that I got totally overexcited. 🙂 I’m not quite happy with the structure and content of this talk yet, but I think it’s starting to get there. (As a point aside, I think I should make a talk that gets into the nitty gritty of Permaculture, water and the landscape, but first, I need to write 3x 4000-6000 word essays on the PhD… sigh) Also, this was the first talk where my special person was in the audience. That was … different.

When I was building this talk, I thought, I work in sewage, and this is a dinner time talk, so…that’s not going to work. I also thought you, as geographers, probably know more about water and the landscape than I do. You probably also had a long day, and I don’t want to exhaust you further with more technical stuff.

To be honest I just put this slide in everywhere because I love it so much, but to give it some place here, this is a rather random talk, some things may be too technical for you, some things may be too general, some too soft and mushy, some too hard… Take what you like from it, and just sit back for the rest. The talk will be online, so you can dip into it whenever you want to again. I learnt about constructivist learning approaches this week, that really appeals to me, so I would like you to build this learning with me.

To read the quote, it’s a Bruce Lee quote, but I can’t do the voice, so bear with me:

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. Now, water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.

It’s a bit weird for me to be here, I’m not a geographer, I don’t even really know what it is, I’m not a teacher, even though I’m learning to be one, I’m on a course! So the web says you all learn about everything on the earth (laughter). I can relate to that, that’s cool.

So I didn’t want to talk about sewage, and then I thought, what is the big thing that I want to talk about? I can tell you about that we have too much dirty water, that our stormwater causes too much flooding because our cities are paved over. That we have a flush and forget, out of sight out of mind mentality where it comes to wastes. That we struggle to manage manure at feedlots at the same time as we struggle to fertilise and nourish our fields. We all know these things, I don’t want to bore you with it.

Now, as engineers and scientists, we like to identify the issue and then address it. I think it’s important to communicate it too. So I’ll follow this approach tonight, but as useful as this is, it causes a lot of specialisation, and creates these silo’s of knowledge, so I want to give one other approach before I dive in.

This quote is by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and I go through these phases where my thinking pulls a lot from the Little Prince, so I apologise, I got a bit carried away with all the pictures… anyways, this quote sums it up.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work (of course, this is important, to organise teams and so on, but it’s not the only thing), but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

So, what’s my big issue? Well, here’s another quote from the little prince. The fox says, you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. And we have tamed our environment. But this is not the whole issue. Here’s another quote, from Bruno Latour, and I learnt a new word – post-environmentalism! I’m a post-environmentalist. Actually, my engineering friends think I’m a hippie and my hippie friends think I’m a capitalist, but hey. Here’s the quote:

Dr. Frankenstein’s crime was not that he invented a creature through some combination of hubris and high technology, but rather than he abandoned the creature to itself.

We create monsters. It happens. But we need to take responsibility for them. And I think a lot of the environmental and other challenges we have now is not that much because we created the circumstances for them, but that we then abandoned them.

For me, the big issue is this: Tame is not sustainable.

When I finished this talk and sent it off to Bridget, and went home, I suddenly thought, oh my God, they’re going to think I’m talking about anarchy. I’m not. Tame and wild is not like order and chaos. To me, tame is disconnected, subdued. Wild is connected, an ecosystem. Community. We do not know ourselves and our interactions with the wider world anymore. This quote by Ian McCallum sums it up – to understand wildness is to discover the thread that binds us to all living things.

I guess it’s a different way of identifying the issue, and now that we have, the really tricky thing is to communicate it. We are trying to bring many very different minds together to talk to each other, and that’s really hard. I want to share with you two approaches that I think does very well at achieving bringing people together to learn in a fun way. The first is biomimicry. It is a design tool: I don’t think it does particularly well at actually addressing challenges, so I think that needs to be kept in mind, but as a design and educational tool, it’s fantastic. The website has excellent resources and a lot of them are free:

Biomimicry has six principles, and Permaculture has 12 principles, which I’ll get to in a moment. These principles help a lot to get your mind around things and iteratively develop solutions to them. They are also very helpful to get people out of their areas of technical jargon, they get to play together in a neutral space.

(I did not go into the principles during the talk as the audience was tired and I thought not really in the space to pay attention, they seemed to want a quick laugh, dessert and then a bed…)

Biomimicry’s six principles:

  • Adapt to changing conditions
  • Be locally attuned and responsive
  • Use life-friendly chemistry
  • Be resource efficient (materials and energy)
  • Integrate development with growth
  • Evolve to survive

Permaculture is the conscious design of human living environments that reflect the ecological principle that underlies nature.

I think Permaculture does a good job of communicating the issues, as well as addressing them. Perhaps more in the organic sphere, land restoration and food production, for example, but the principles can be used in any setting (some more metaphorically speaking than others).

Permaculture principles: (

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change.

I want to particularly highlight the eleventh principle – Use edges and value the marginal.

It’s the things on the edges that innovate because they have to, because if they don’t, they die. At the edges you also get to interact with other things, cross the boundaries, which allows you to make connections that may not have been possible before.

What we have move to the margins is our waste, so I want to take the last part of the talk and focus on how to address this big issue in terms of waste, and the work that we do.

Biomimicry considers that nature knows no waste. Permaculture says a waste is simply a resource that is out of place, that we can innovate and make valuable again. Even OMO gets in on the action, and says, waste is good (I’m paraphrasing).

At CeBER, the Centre for Bioprocessing Engineering Research, we look at how these things fit together, what we can make from wastes using biology, and also what that means in terms of economics, and if it fits well in the bigger picture, if it is really good for the environment and so on.

I didn’t know how much technical stuff you want so I just put in the introduction pictures, but please feel free to ask questions at any level of technicality.

The Biominerals group is our largest group and the best funded (and sometimes with the ego to match). They use bugs to treat mine wastewater, but also to mine low grade ores, mainly for copper, but also for zinc and gold. They do great work, they’re really brilliant.

One of the main research areas in CeBER is bioleaching, a process where microbes are used as biocatalysts to convert metal compounds into their soluble forms. This leaching process is an alternative economical method for the recovery of metals such as copper, zinc and gold from low-grade mineral ores, with low investment and operation costs.

The Algae group is the PR face of CeBER: all our press photos have algae group pictures in, and the most beautiful people work in this group. It’s true. This group looks at if algae is all it’s cracked up to be, it started with the hype around biomass to fuels, and looked at if it made economical sense – it can’t, and now we look at ways to supplement the economics with higher-value products like carotenoids and nutraceuticals. This group also looks at the whole ecosystem and if it makes environmental sense.

CeBER focuses on algal cultivation, harvesting and processing for the production of carotenoids, nutraceuticals, lipds and energy products. Maximising lipid productivity through optimising the uptake of light and CO2 is critical to systems scale-up. Through the biorefinery concept, inventory analysis and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). we identify key contributions required for feasible algal processes.

And then there’s me. I learn from the biominerals group who work with the very dilute mining waters, and the algae group who knows about biorefineries, and I try to bring them together, to create value from a range of wastewaters – my passion being municipal wastewater. I found this beautiful quote at the last conference in Spain this year, which was very exciting as more and more people are now getting the hang of this thing. That does make me feel a bit odd because now it feels that I’m moving away from the edge, so I have to do something to keep the edge!

A biorefinery is characterised as an explicitly integrative, multifunctional overall concept that uses biomass as a diverse source of raw materials for the sustainable generation of a spectrum of different intermediates and products (chemicals, materials and/or bioenergy/fuel) whilst including the fullest possible use of all raw material components – EU definition, presented at RRB2014 by Timoteo de la Fuente.

This is really important, as the first ‘biorefineries’ were all about taking one raw material, say the crops that were taking the space for our food, and turning it into fuel, and that was not working well at all. These biorefineries now start to approach much more of an ecosystem, and I think that is really moving in the right direction.

I want to end with coming back to that longing for the sea. I spent a lot of time fighting and trying to figure out how to make this world better. We are in a tough spot, a lot of things are not going well, and it is easy to get despondent.

Then I found this word, jouissance. It means physical or intellectual pleasure, delight, or ecstasy, and comes from the French word jouir, for “enjoy”.

I’m not sure if I should say this, but I’m going to anyway. This word also has links to orgasm (roars of laughter which made me feel quite goofy), … and I think that’s epic.

I first came across jouissance in a book written about capitalism (Capitalism’s New Clothes – Enterprise, Ethics and Enjoyment in Times of Crisis), of all things, in which Colin Cremin describes it as follows:

… a brief flash of enjoyment (more roars of laughter, making me very happy 🙂 ) achieved after excessive pursuit (a few giggles). The pleasure lies in the obstacles to fulfillment – but only if that fulfillment eventually arrives, and only if there are obstacles.

In our search for tameness and control, we want everything to always flow smoothly, but that robs us of jouissance. On the other hand, the fact that so many things are changing so fast is not such a bad thing. So I want to implore you to embrace a bit of wildness, in these interesting times. We need to work hard to make things better, but celebrate those small wins, have some brief flashes of enjoyment. This way, we would get further, and have more fun.

And that’s it! Thank you for your kind attention.

*** The talk after mine was by Carin De Villiers on SA’s Alternatives to Coal, and can be found here (1.5MB).


Motto in the drought

After being caught with a dirty house yet again when a film crew arrives, I decided to just embrace it ….

Embrace your inner scruffy. Design it well from the start.

It being anything from good quality odour absorbing clothes, low maintenance houses, rainwater collection devices …

Dry toilets for all, forever?

This post was developed as a submission for The Conversation. I have to rework it because “the article covers a huge amount of ground, and that there isn’t immediately a ‘golden thread’ that can be easily identified.” I like it, so it’s going to live here in its current form 🙂

When the probability of Day Zero was first announced in January 2018, the realisation that the extreme drought in Cape Town may affect the functioning of the sewer systems became apparent to everyday people. Through my work in [resource recovery from wastewaters]( and particularly how [sanitation can contribute to the circular economy]( I have been thinking about the benefits of dry sanitation. I am intrigued by the potential of biological means to recover value from diffuse pollution. But could they ever be introduced at large scale?

Continue reading “Dry toilets for all, forever?”

Experting in times of crisis: Ethics of care.

This piece brings together concerns that I have from observing responses to the Cape Town water crisis. It was developed as a talk (slides here) which I never got to give, so I would appreciate input to guide me to develop this further.

This talk is in 5 parts:

  1. if innovation is by poor people, does it count?
  2. experting 101: ethics of care
  3. expert #fail: how not to expert
  4. advanced experting: how to jouissance
  5. in closing

Continue reading “Experting in times of crisis: Ethics of care.”

Response to an interview request 16 Feb 2018

I wrote this for a journalist a while ago. I don’t have time to make it pretty right now, but wanted this out there for a stressful presentation in a  short while. 🙂

Marcel Hartmann, science reporter for Zero Hora

Bernelle Verster, Future Water institute, University of Cape Town 16 Feb 2018

  • What are the reasons for the water shortage in Cape Town? Global warming? Population growth? Lack of environmental politics? I’d like to explain each one of them to our Brazilian readers.

The basic reason is a prolonged extreme drought – very low rainfall.

This drought is in the context of increasing population into the Western Cape, the population has doubled in the last 30 years which has increased water demand to almost equal water supply even during good rainfall years. In addition our population’s overall wealth has been increasing since the advent of democracy, and increasing wealth inevitably leads to higher water consumption.

A changing climate is leading to more extreme weather events – in the bigger picture the Western Cape is getting drier, and when it rains it is more likely to flood.

We do have reasonably good environmental politics but this is also in the face of conflicting political and budgetary demands.

  • Why couldn’t the government prevent this crisis? Cape Town is known for its good water policies…

The government has long-term plans in place that is being implemented. The drought came earlier than the completion of the augmentation measures.

Slide 8 of this presentation shows the extra water supply visually:
The models we have available were not able to predict the extent of the drought. The water policies were able to cope with severe droughts, but this was worse that what they realistically could prepare for. Once the city knew they needed to take action, the inequalities in this country counted against us:

We are one of the most unequal cities in the world. Our middle and upper classes were wasteful water users and not willing to save water until the situation became truly dire. We have an average water use of 235 L per person per day in South Africa – a country whose annual average rainfall (490mm) is half the world average. The average daily water usage per capita in the world is 173 L.

(Sourced from )

At the same time, the rest of the population need to have services delivered – housing, roads, health and education, to improve their quality of life, their ability to contribute economically and build the overall resilience of the region.  Supplying more water had to compete with these needs, while people could save water but didn’t.

3)      Do you believe that the current measures imposed by the city of Cape Town are a good solution?

Yes. The demand reduction measures which include an increased tariff, and the supply augmentation measures are the best the City of Cape Town can do in the current complex mix of challenges and budgetary constraints they face.

The City could have done better with overall political engagement, governance structures, and overall communication – the City could have communicated earlier and their strategy could have been more people-centric. This is a common problem for bureaucracies who manage risk through ‘command and control’ and will have to change with a changing climate, where we cannot predict the best route of action anymore. Resilient cities have engaging communication with the people living and working in the city.

More about that here:

  • Cape Town is the first global city with a real chance of running out of water. May this happen to other cities around the world? Which ones? Why?

Yes.  The rest of South Africa is also in trouble. This is also a global problem that will get worse. We have moved so far out of our buffer zones, that we have very little room to find alternate solutions effectively. We’ve painted ourselves in a corner.

More info:
Top 10 megacities facing a water crisis
Cities ranked by seriousness of water crisis. Bars show population in millions
1 Chengdu, China
2 Lagos, Nigeria
3 Seoul, South Korea
4 Paris, France
5 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
6 Dhaka, Bangladesh
7 Mumbai, India
8 Sao Paulo, Brazil
9 Chennai, India
10 Shenzhen, China

  • São Paulo and Brasilia (Brazil’s capital) have already faced water cuts – not as Cape Town though. What would you say to politics and mostly to people who live in big cities and may face the same problem that people of Cape Town is dealing right now?

Learn from this and build resilient cities. Support and incentivize demand-side interventions by businesses and individuals. Change the income models to not rely on income from services where a decreasing demand (and hence revenue) is contradictory to improved resilience. Invest in green infrastructure – that is not just ‘trees and parks’; it could be engineered, concrete solutions. Green infrastructure is working with natural functions to allow cities and the people with them to work with nature. Green infrastructure appreciates over time, it increases in value and utility, and also increases nearby property values and investment potential. The potential higher upfront cost and possible increased maintenance is worth it. Cities need to communicate better with their constituents, and this takes time. Encourage relationships of care. Support more decentralized solutions, allowing people in their own neighbourhoods to implement solutions and take control over it. This requires a different way of monitoring risk, of creating awareness and managing people. Cities need to take more cognizance of ecosystem services, and the ecologies around cities, and take action to preserve them. We all need to learn and adapt together.

Some more info:

Scaling water interventions

Conversation with someone chatting to me after the UCT water crisis lecture today (by the way, this Future Water page has many interviews and chats about the crisis, in balances informed tones). I didn’t go. Was duckfood shopping with a brief stop to do retail therapy. (The stress to submit the thesis has caused insomnia and to get myself to fall asleep I have been watching, wait for it, nail art videos.) So I went buying nail art stuff. Yup. Glitterified.)

Neil’s been working on sustainable urban water management for a long time. –
His comment about the rainwater tanks (being: rain tanks are a waste of money for the amount of buffering they provide) comes from his PhD student Lloyd Fischer- Jeffes’s work, where they saw that rainwater is more expensive than stormwater harvesting and managed aquifer recharge – which is effectively a huuuuuuge rainwater tank underneath the city.

[another UCT researcher said “imagine if 1/2 a million people had 2000 litre rain tanks, that would be 1000 million litres of water buffered. ]

1000 million litres is two days of CT’s water supply under level 6 restrictions (Is my math correct here?). We get about 6 storms a year, so let’s say we multiply that by 6, gives 12 days of buffering. That’s a lot of effort for not much return. I do think we should encourage rainwater tanks because it’s an easy way to get people to understand their water use and visualise how much they’re using. From comments on FaceBook, this also holds more for a city than for way-out places, where the costs of getting the water there is different, and water security looks a bit different, perhaps.

If you think of the cost of a rainwater tank of 2 000L, what’s that, R5000? multiplied by 500 000 = R2.5 billion? That’s a lot of money for 12 days buffering, think we can do better.

Neil also said something else the other day – someone said we need dual piping to our homes with treated wastewater to flush the toilets. That’s a large cost for the extra set of pipes. There’s also risk of that water potentially being in contact with people, and cleaning wastewater to potable level is cheaper. But, Neil reminded us that the city is actually treating wastewater and reintroducing it into the system, and has done so for a while. This effectively achieves the same as the dual pipes would, for much cheaper. Of course, on the other hand this requires functioning infrastructure, good governance and institutional competence. As a city, we are doing OK with that, but we don’t trust the powers that be.

*** But this begs the question, if we have a certain amount of effort & resources to spend, should that go into innovations that is the equivalent of rainwater tanks, or should we rather work on improving the governance and institutions managing these things? ***

There’s a reason the world is urbanising. It’s more efficient. What we need to learn is how to apply this efficiency also in taking care of our environment and out social structures.