In Tamale, Northern Ghana, 25-year-old Hyginus Laari kept coming back to a problem he saw widespread in his community. Open defecation, instead of using toilets, contributes to the spread of bacterial diseases such as cholera and diarrhea.
The tropical climate of Tamale makes its soil favorable for the cultivation of staple cereals, legumes and tubers, and rice is a very popular food. But when milling rice, the husk on the outer part of the grain is often thrown away—wasted.
Yet the husk has unique physical and chemical properties that are not being harnessed in Ghana and across many other African countries. Laari—a regional finalist in the Young Champions of the Earth prize in 2018—decided to change this, using waste rice to address the problem of open defecation.
His idea is an eco-toilet, installed using boards made from rice husks. The husks are first dried and screened for particles of the right size. Then, they are blended and a special adhesive in liquid form is sprayed to make a sheet. The sheets are then compressed, heated, cooled, trimmed and sanded down.
The toilets are made using a granite flooring. A commode is then inserted and pipes leading toward a pit, and rice-husk panels are screwed into place to complete the walls around the toilets. Laari is now looking for funding to scale up his idea.
“Improper waste management has serious health and environmental consequences. If it persists, it will undermine Africa’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” Abdouraman Bary, UN Environment Programme’s Chemicals, Waste and Air Quality Africa sub-programme coordinator, said.
Isaac Emmanuel, from Covestro, one of the world’s leading polymer manufacturers which drives the Young Champions of the Earth Prize, worked alongside Laari to help him develop his idea further.
“It was very fulfilling to interact with Hyginus and share in igniting new avenues for his idea,” he said. “Though the challenges are enormous, youth like him who are full of energy and hope keep up the positive spirit in all of us.”
We caught up with Laari to ask him where it all started.
What inspired you to come up with the idea of making eco-toilets from rice waste?
Reading about India's household sanitation and the tremendous improvements made during the Swachh Bharat Mission, to increase coverage of safe sanitation services in the country, have inspired me. Too often, the husks of rice—a major food in Ghana—are either burnt into ashes or dumped as solid waste. At the same time, no district in Ghana has been certified as open-defecation-free. Despite education about its negative impacts on society, the practice of open defecation remains a major challenge in Ghana. Our eco-toilet innovation creates a cleaner environment while also tackling rice husk waste. It is installed using agro-waste board panels made from rice husk, that are low-cost and eco-sensitive for the construction industry.
What challenges have you faced along the way, and how have you overcome them?
Community sensitization and funding have been my major challenges. While at the University for Development Studies in the Northern Region of Ghana, I found writing blogs about the sanitation challenges in Ghana and sharing them on social media a very good way to raise awareness about my work in the initial phases.
Have you found being young in general a challenge in implementing your work?
Not at all—in fact I have benefited since I have older people as mentors. As the late Kofi Annan once said: “I talk to young people—their attitude, determination to make a difference, innovative spirit and desire to change things gives me hope.” Being young should never be an excuse not to find innovative ways to tackle sanitation. I think it is my responsibility to think beyond my age and create the clean Ghana for the next generation to inherit, that we can all be proud of.
You were shortlisted as a regional finalist for the Africa region in 2018. Has this helped you on your journey?
Since applying to be a Young Champion of the Earth, I have been selected among the top 100 African landscape restoration youth leaders under the Youth in Landscape initiative for the African region prior to the Global Landscapes Forum in Nairobi. I also filmed a documentary on my project for national television. I participated in the Clean Ghana Challenge Competition and emerged as one of the winners, and my project continues to catch the attention of mentors who are willing to support me.
What is your vision for the future?
My vision is to install household eco-toilet facilities across communities in Ghana and Africa. And, to create sanitation awareness across Ghana and Africa—most recently through a mobile application. As young people, we are the leaders of tomorrow. We must be on the front line of world development. My vision is to continue to reach out and inspire more young people to solve environmental problems, especially those addressed by the Sustainable Development Goals, contributing to the 2030 agenda.
The Young Champions of the Earth Prize is powered by Covestro. The prize is UN Environment Programme's leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges. This year’s regional finalists have been shortlisted and the winners will be announced soon. Hyginus Laari is a Young Champions of the Earth prize changemaker.