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Enterprise

Engineer turns sewage into lucrative venture

Oblivious to the fact that she is the only woman on the construction site, Lucy Mutinda, a 34-year-old engineer, casually directs the other male engineers and workers fixing a sewage treatment system in Mocah Apartments in Kiambu. “Seeing sewage turned into clean water is my passion,” she says.

Five years ago, Ms Mutinda while studying in Germany saw a market in Kenya waiting to be served and staked everything on running her own startup.

She declined a job at Continental AG, a leading tyre manufacturer, that had potential to boost her engineering career and moved back to Kenya. She took a job at a waste recycling company, Excloosive, Kenya’s trailblazer in waste management as head of the engineering department, setting her eyes on gaining more experience locally, understanding the waste management market and saving capital.

Three years down the line, armed with international waste management experience, Sh1.5 million and knowledge on the Kenyan market, she started her own sewage recycling company, Ecocycle, with two partners. For a young woman entrepreneur, starting a new company that competes with your former successful employer seems ill-conceived, but to Ms Mutinda, she says she is not a competitor, but a partner.

“Ever since university and post-university training, I always knew that I did not want to be employed for more than 10 years.” Ms Mutinda says her love for recycling started in 2009 when she visited the serene parks in Germany. She later learnt that there was a technology that was used to collect and treat sewage into clean water which was safely discharged back to the environment and natural water bodies.

The recycled waste water was what was keeping the lawns green and plush. “I felt this was an excellent technology for the sewage management challenges back home,” she says.

For most startups, getting customers tops the list of entrepreneurs’ headaches during the first years. But for Ms Mutinda, she had a starting point; she turned to the construction consultants whom she had worked with while at Excloosive. She says her track record of excellent implementation of a number of projects when she was at the firm has also enabled her to get referrals to developers and home owners.

The mother of two says she sources equipment from Germany which is installed underground in estates and homes. The seven-month-old startup has so far worked on six gated communities and individual homes.

The production engineer had set her sights on building a leading engineering consortium implementing sustainable solutions in environmental pollution management in Kenya. She also plans to partner with a German manufacturer to set up a Kenyan production facility for the recycling equipment.

So how does the sewage treatment system work? “Our system is different. A home owner does not require many pipes so the waste cannot clog. We save on space as we instal it beneath parking lots, and it’s not noisy,” she says.

She adds: “Compared to what we have in the market, someone cannot even tell where it’s installed. It’s like a humming washing machine. The system comes with a control cabinet which has a computer that can be accessed by a caretaker and has a siren alarm that will go off in case of malfunction.”

Ninety per cent of the sewage comes out as clean water and 10 per cent remains as sludge in one compartment which is removed after five years. The water can be used for flushing toilets, washing cars or irrigating farms and lawns, enabling home owners cut on water bills and use of waste exhausters to pump out septic tanks as well as saves the environment from pollution.

“For toilet flushing, we instal a separate water pipe,” said Isaac Karani, adding that one can save up to 14 per cent of fresh water bills per head by using recycled water in toilets.

Ecocycle uses a system called sequential batch reactor (SBR) waste water treatment technology. The waste water enters the pre-treatment chamber (sludge chamber). The coarse materials sink to the bottom and the pre-treated effluent flows into the next chamber with the help of a natural gradient.

The second chamber is the buffer tank serving as storage until the effluent is pumped into the reactor. “With our SBR technology, the waste water is treated in three eight-hour cycles per day. One cycle consists of filling of the reactor, aeration phase, sedimentation phase then the removal of treated waste water,” says Ms Mutinda.

The system is biological and mimics nature. Just that faster air is provided by blowers that supply oxygen into the system tank, which means a process that would take in nature a couple of days, is accomplished in a day, producing clean water for secondary use, she says.

Installation takes two to three days and varies in costs depending on the number of homes connected to the system. The smallest equipment that can cater for a population of 10 people costs about Sh390,000. For a stand-alone house, the system is installed at a cost of between Sh200,000 to Sh500,000 depending on a developer.

‘‘For installation of a 33,750 litres sewage recycling system like this at Mocah Apartments by Qwanza Homes Ltd, it cost about Sh5.5 million for the equipment and tank. It will cater for 40 houses, or about 225 people.’’

“Our biggest project was in Kitengela where we installed a system for 60 maisonettes, treating 75,000 litres of sewage per day with a population of about 500 people. We did the same for 26 maisonettes at Moran Court in Kitengela for 30,000 litres of sewage per day, or a population of 200 people,” she says.

She has six permanent employees and a pool of associate technicians and consulting engineers who she works with on different projects. “I also work with my former employer in case we have projects beyond our capacity.”

Being a young mother, she has learnt the art of juggling motherhood, running a startup and marriage. “I am blessed with excellent planning skills. I strive to have time slots for everything. As a woman, I am created to manage and plan multiple complex tasks.”

Her advice to the youth: “Most of us fall victims of wanting to be part of something only when it succeeds, but not to be part of the work, dirt or strain behind the success. Don’t fall in this club. Success is very sweet if you are part of the donkey work. So, just go ahead and try set up what you dream of.”

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