Two PAUSTI Scholars in bid to transform wastes into building materials

It was quarter past 3 pm when I walked into one of the Civil Engineering laboratories at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). I had an interview with two young scholars, Tuaum Gebremariam, an Ethiopian and Frank Tangomo, a Cameroonian who were refining their research ideas into tangible solutions targeted at some of Africa’s persistent challenges. Both were beneficiaries of the African Union scholarship, to pursue Masters in civil engineering at the JKUAT-hosted Pan African University Institute for Basic Sciences, Technology and Innovation (PAUSTI).

The rain outside, forced the handful of young scholars in the laboratory to turn on electric light for better visibility.  That action formed the heart and soul of Gebremariam’s research idea. He went on to explain.

Tuaum Gebremariam at work in the laboratory
Tuaum Gebremariam at work in the laboratory

“You see, due to the opacity of the concrete used to make the walls, light cannot come through. We are forced to use electricity. My aim is to build translucent concrete, incorporating waste glass,” he explained.

Gebremariam’s research is a contribution to managing three major challenges facing the continent: solid wastes, energy and environmental degradation.

“Besides carbon emission and noise pollution associated with cement production, the industrial process is also energy intensive,” he pointed out. “My research utilizes rice husks in place of cement and waste glass in place of sand.”

Gebremariam hopes to revolutionize Africa’s building and construction sector by using waste glass, which constitutes 10% of total solid waste in Kenya as well as the largely available rice husks, under a self-compacting technology.

Tuaum (left) and Tangomo tests concrete tensile strength at the civil engineering laboratory
Tuaum (left) and Tangomo tests concrete tensile strength at the civil engineering laboratory

The resultant translucent concrete would contribute to energy conservation, and save the environment from extraction for cement manufacturing purposes.

On another table, Frank Tangomo was refining his research idea on the use of plastic coated with volcanic scoria to make light weight concrete.

“The available light weight concretes are very expensive and produced with a lot of energy. It is for this reason that I am testing the efficacy of plastic coated volcanic scoria as an alternative,” he averred.

Plastic wastes form a major part of solid wastes in Africa. In Kenya, the government has banned the manufacture, sale and use of the commodities to cushion the environment from their toxic effect.

I sought to understand what motivates the young scholars to delve into applied research that could be tapped for Africa’s socio-economic transformation.

Tangomo shows the plastic coated scoria (on the left) against the naturally occurring scoria
Tangomo shows the plastic coated scoria (on the left) against the naturally occurring scoria

“Innovation is still low in Africa. Many people across the continent tend to focus only on product modification instead of coming up with new ones. We must now begin to look at the challenges facing us and provide sustainable solutions using African innovation,” Gebremariam said.

African innovation, a concept promoted by AFRICA-ai-JAPAN project which financially supported the two scholars, aims at leveraging African knowledge, wisdom, experiences and locally available resources to provide homegrown solutions.

“A major impediment to innovation research in Africa is inadequate facilities and poor funding,” offers Tangomo. “By joining PAUSTI, I was exposed to a rich network of scholars and proper facilities, making it possible for me to undertake this kind of innovation research.”

The two scholars lauded the founding of PAUSTI and support from AFRICA-ai-JAPAN Project as important in driving Africa’s development through research and innovation.