Better biofuels: The Philippine weed that’s changing the world

Photo: HiGi Energy/Facebook

By Sarah Caroline Bell

Jackie Yap set out to address a major problem facing the residents of the Philippines; the overgrowth of the water hyacinth which has been strangling the local waterways.

The plants prolifically fill the Rio Grande de Mindanao, the country’s second largest river system, causing the river to flood surrounding areas after a period of heavy rain. The flowering plant was to blame for the devastating 2011 flood of Cotabato City, and other areas of southern Philippines, which  displaced approximately 6,000 families. A number of people lost their lives in the rising waters.

Bringing together a team of bright-minded young people, the HiGi Energy team gathered in the Philippines to solve the problem. And the solution they came up with is revolutionary. The team decided to convert the abundance of overgrown water hyacinths into solid blocks of ignitable biomass which could be used as a source of cooking fuel in homes, replacing the traditional coal and wood. These briquettes burn for much longer, providing value for money to consumers. They also ignite quickly, meaning less time is required to get the fuel ready when preparing food.

Gaining ground

And their innovative briquettes have captured international attention. The founding CEO, Jackie Yap, was recently invited to attend the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Silicon Valley, California where he was awarded the prize of first runner up in the Global Innovation in Science and Technology (GIST) Net Competition.

The key thing that’s getting them noticed is that the fuel blocks are smokeless. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over four million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels. And more than 50% of premature deaths due to pneumonia among children under five are caused by soot inhaled from household air pollution.

HiGi’s briquettes also solve another problem, the environmental degradation caused when trees are felled for firewood. Studies from the  World Bank suggest that, “without a substantial change in policy, the total number of people relying on solid fuels will remain largely unchanged. The use of polluting fuels also poses a major burden on sustainable development.”

A local success

Finally, the process of manufacturing briquettes creates employment opportunities as locals are required to be trained up to harvest the water hyacinth and process the plant fibre into fuel. HiGi have stated they aren’t just interested in the water hyacinth, they are also investigating other sources of agricultural waste that have the potential to be converted into biomass briquettes.

At this early stage HiGi Energy’s products have proved to be a popular concept and their pilot project in Tarlac in the Philippines is an all-round success. Thanks to their efforts they are able to support more than 80 local families, a brilliant accomplishment for a resource that was previously determined as just a pest. The briquette has the potential to do exceedingly well across the entire ASEAN region; HiGi is certainly a startup to watch.