Green Keeper water hyacinth harvesters in Sô-Ava, Benin © Olivier de Souza
Known as togblé (the land is ruined) in Benin’s Fon language, the water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is a highly invasive aquatic plant. But it has also become a viable resource for people living in Sô-Ava, 35 km north of Benin’s capital, Cotonou. This remarkable turnaround began when engineer David Gnonlonfoun joined forces with Fohla Mouftaou, a paediatrician, to set up a company – Green Keeper Africa – to harvest and process the plant. The men were inspired by the Mexican firm, Tema, which uses water hyacinth to clean up oil spills and dams. Water hyacinth fibre is an effective absorbent; it also has a high nitrate content, making it an excellent bio-fertiliser and rabbit feed. Green Keeper Africa uses the plant to make different products for all three functions, but predominantly focuses on producing an absorbent cleaner for oil spills.
An eco-friendly and socially responsible firm
Green Keeper Africa sources its raw materials from around 400 harvesters (two thirds of whom are women) in Sô-Ava, Ganvie and the surrounding area. “We’ve trained women to harvest and dry water hyacinths,” explains Exhaussé Hounsa-Totin, Green Keeper Africa’s head of supply chain. “They deliver the dried plants to us and, after running some quality checks, we pay them by volume.” One of the company’s goals is to contribute to better living conditions for local women. Initially, Green Keeper Africa paid 100 CFA francs (€0.15) per 10 kg bag. However, now that the company has become profitable that figure has increased to 400 francs (€0.60). The company hopes that a better buying price will increase the harvesters’ commitment to ensuring that the hyacinth they collect and dry adheres to high quality standards.
For many women, collecting and drying water hyacinths has become their main source of income, as opposed to fishing or trading other commodities such as salt and pepper, which do not offer the same guarantee of a stable selling price. “Harvesting and drying these plants is hard work,” explains Rosaline Adanhoun, head of Sô-Ava’s water hyacinth harvesters. “But I earn enough money from it to make ends meet and put my children through school. And because these plants tend to block waterways and make it harder to fish, the company is also helping to clean up the local environment.”
Gnonlonfoun and Mouftaou’s firm is now an established part of the local community. After just 3 years, Green Keeper Africa is processing 500 t of water hyacinths a month, producing 200 t of plant fibre. Most of this output goes to the petroleum industry, where the fibre is used for clean-up operations, while the remainder is used in bio-fertilizer and rabbit feed products. A year after they set up the company, Gnonlonfoun and Mouftaou secured a major industrial cleaning contract with a local subsidiary of the Swiss firm Oryx. They now have a further two companies which regularly use Green Keeper Africa’s oil cleaning services. The company’s longer-term ambition is to tap into the vast Nigerian oil market to the east, working in tandem with partners such as Solidarités Entreprise Nord-Sud (SENS), a cooperative investment fund in Dassa-Zoumé that provides training and financial assistance to small and medium sized enterprises that promote sustainable development in the agricultural and energy sectors.