A team of five students from Ghana, Costa Rica, and the United States recently won a US$5,000 prize for developing a model to turn waste into sustainable fertilizer for rural farmers.
The team, Pellet Group, was one of three groups awarded the 2020 Wege Prize, a competition among college students to develop affordable, environmentally-sustainable products or systems. Their entry, Pellet, outlines a plan to recycle waste into organic fertilizer in Sub-Saharan communities. The project aims to cut costs for farmers, restore soil health, and ensure proper waste management.
Pellet Group has already developed its prototype at EARTH University in Costa Rica. By early 2021, the team plans to start production in three Gabo District communities in Rwanda.
“We decided to start this project in Rwanda because it is our motherland and it is where this solution is needed [more] than anywhere else,” Elias Kagabo, the CEO of Pellet Group, tells Food Tank.
Many Rwandan farmers rely on expensive and often unaffordable, imported fertilizers. These fertilizers are also inorganic, so they degrade soil and contaminate water runoff.
Compounding the problem, waste in the Gasabo District is often poorly disposed of, making way for toxic—and sometimes deadly—pathogens that leach into groundwater. In the next decade, researchers expect waste in the area to increase by 63 percent.
Pellet Group aims to address these issues simultaneously by turning community waste into affordable, organic fertilizer. To do so, the team will deliver recycling bins to homes, restaurants, marketplaces, and farms. They will then collect the waste, dry it, to kill off any bacteria or fungi, and convert it into organic fertilizer pellets.
Pellet Group explains that their fertilizer is rich in nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as microorganisms that help the soil hold water. Unlike synthetic fertilizer, producing organic pellets doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. And the organic fertilizer doesn’t have to be applied as frequently, which is healthier for soil.
The team projects their organic fertilizer will cut costs for local farmers by 35 percent. And early tests show the pellets can increase crop yields by as much as 50 percent, which will improve food access in local communities. Furthermore, the pellets repurpose food waste that would otherwise contaminate local land, water, and air.
Pellet Group’s plans depend heavily on community participation, according to Kagabo. The team will use social media networks to spread awareness about their product and offer incentives of US$0.02 per Killigram of waste they collect.
In an initial poll, more than 90 percent of Gasabo District families agreed to receive waste bins at their homes, and 97 percent said they would be comfortable with employees picking up their waste. About half said they would “always” be careful to separate organic waste, and an additional 30 percent said they would be careful “most of the time.”
Some community members have already expressed excitement, according to Kagabo. “The communities in Gasabo are not aware of waste disposal and environmental conservation. But when we did the survey, we realized that teaching them wouldn’t be hard.”
With enough capital, the team projects that they can produce 96 tons of pellet fertilizer in one year. After Gasabo, the team hopes to sell and distribute their products across Rwanda and eventually to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Images courtesy of Pellet Group