Sunday, 24 January 2010

Assaulting sawdust to make live healthier

SAWDUST is a menace in Nigeria. People burn it for lack of a better use, and it also clogs waterways. The situation troubles Rufus Idris because people in his country suffer the health effects of smoke, particles and toxic gases.
He made a pitch in a competition to World Bank three years ago, to get funding to turn wood waste into products. Though he didn’t win, the idea made it to the finals and gained support. As a result, a small business that makes sawdust briquettes is under way in Nigeria.
Idris, co-founder of the Union Of African Communities in Pittsburgh, is in Washington, D.C., as a finalist in the African Diaspora Marketplace competition. He wants to help Nigerians – and ultimately people throughout Africa – start businesses making water filter vessels modeled on the ones made in the basement of Braddock’s Carnegie Library.
The Braddock Pot Shop is home to the first water-vessel factory in North America. There, Jeffrey Schwarz makes ceramic cones from clay, sawdust and colloidal silver. When the cones are fired at 1,700 degrees, the sawdust burns off and the vessel becomes something like a colander through which the water filters.

IDRIS learnt about the factory from a professor at La Roche College. “He showed up last summer and said, ‘I have a problem with sawdust,” said Mr. Schwarz. The factory was set up in the fall of 2008. At the urging of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, AmeriCorps established Mr. Schwarz as a paid staff to run it. The factory was the brainchild of Slippery Rock University ceramics instructor Richard Wukich, Schwarz’s former teacher.
Since word has spread about the factory, it has become a resource and training centre for people, who want to take the expertise to their homelands. It doesn’t make sense to pay to ship vessels when people can make them where they’re needed, said Schwarz.
Idris gets money from the Heinz Endowments to develop economic improvement programmes for African immigrants under a non-profit organisation, Christian Evangelistic Economic Development, he runs. He has a bachelor’s degree in Aquatic Sciences and a Master’s in Environmental Management and Toxicology from Nigerian universities. He is working towards a Physical Therapy degree in a joint programme of Duquesne University and La Roche College.
He was among the 733 applicants for USAID/Western Union funding. If his project is selected, it could receive between $50,000 to $100,000. He is also working on a collaboration that includes the University of Pittsburgh, Slippery Rock University, Rotary International and other non-profit organisations. He said the vessels in Nigerian households could have a ripple effect on the peoples’ lives.
Safe water will make people healthier, and income from the factories will afford them better food. He estimates that in the first year of funding, 35 people could be put to work and that, over three years, 39,000 filters could be in use in Nigerian households.
“The major materials are in abundance and the machine needed is simple to get,” he said. “It is such a simple way to solve so many problems.”
djones@post-gazette.com

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