Please note: I’m busy moving blogs, and copied this content over. The image links are going to break, if they haven’t already. It is what it is.
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.
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.
POOP SCOOP, HOW TO
MAKE MONEY FROM WASTE
– 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.