Millennials turn water lilies into charcoal

Two young ladies from the University of the Philippines-Visayas teamed up with two Malaysian engineers to convert water lilies clogging lakes and rivers into eco-friendly charcoal for cooking.

“Four million die every year because of in-house air pollution mainly due to firewood used for cooking. We found a cleaner solution which is smokeless ‘charcoal’ made of water hyacinth,” says Zherluck Shaen Rodriguez, the 22-year-old chief marketing officer of HiGi Energy Pte. Ltd. in Tarlac province.

Rodriguez describes HiGi as an Asean social startup that seeks to reduce the use of firewood and charcoal by converting agricultural wastes such as water hyacinth, rice hulls and coconut husk into smokeless biomass briquettes which can serve as a cleaner and cheaper alternative cooking energy in rural areas.

MILLENNIALS. HiGi Energy Pte. Ltd. chief marketing officer Zherluck Shaen Rodriguez and chief finance officer  Hazel May Pajotagana
Rodriguez together with Hazel May Pajotagana, the 23-year-old chief financial officer of HiGi recently represented the Victoria, Tarlac-based startup in the Impact Hub Fellowship Program on Sustainable Energy Solutions. 

HiGi is one of the three groups that won the six-month fellowship program and P800,000 in financial support from Impact Hub Manila, World Wide Fund for Nature, Peace and Equity Foundation and the Asian Development Bank. Other awardees are Solar Solutions and CleverHeat Thermal Technologies.

Rodriguez and Pajotagana teamed up with Jackie Yap and Leon Kee, two young Malaysian engineers to establish HiGi Energy and produce briquettes for low-income communities under the brand ‘Uling Lily’.  Yap, 24, serves as the company’s chief executive and Lee, 22, is the chief technology officer.  

“HiGi refers to Hyacinth for Green Energy,” says Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who obtained a Business Administration degree from UP Visayas in Iloilo in 2014, believes that aside from being a social enterprise, HiGi can also be a profitable business, as about 65 percent of households in the countryside still use firewood and charcoal in cooking.

“We are a nine-month-old startup based in Victoria, Tarlac where there is a lot of water hyacinth or water lilies,” she says.

Rodriguez, who was born in North Cotabato, says the concept about HiGi started after a flood hit Cotabato last year.  The founders discovered that water hyacinth aggravated the flooding as it clogged the river and residents found it difficult to cook because there was no dry firewood.

“There were hundreds of families affected by flooding in Cotabato City.  We found out they were using firewood and charcoal in cooking,” says Rodriguez.

The young founders asked: “Why not use water hyacinth for cooking?”  Armed with a new idea to solve an age-old problem, the Filipino and Malaysian partners went on to form a company in Tarlac, which now has nine employees who chop, grind and turn water lilies into briquettes.

“Our echo-friendly briquettes are cheaper, burn longer and are actually smokeless,” says Rodriguez.

Pajotagan says HiGi will use the cash prize from the Impact Hub Fellowship Program on Sustainable Energy Solutions to scale up business operations and acquire machineries to increase production and enable them to serve other areas that are infested by water hyacinth.

Rodriguez says while their initial focus is Tarlac, the company aims to expand to other areas such as Metro Manila and Laguna, where water lilies pose a problem.

“We are actually in market expansion and also product development stage.  We are more now into finding more people to actually use the product,” says Rodriguez.

“We are expanding in Metro Manila within this year.  We will be having a lot of barbecue parties to invite more people to showcase our products,” she says.

Rodriguez says HiGi is an example that ‘millennials’ are concerned about the environment.  “Millennials are doing new things to solve old problems,” she says.

Pajotagana agrees, saying millennials are driven to make a change.  “We are proud to be millennials,” say the two young ladies.

“We are now seven months away from home.  If we make an impact here, then we can go back home and be proud of what we actually did,” says Rodriguez.

Impact Hub Manila co-founder LizAn Kuster says 53 groups initially participated in the fellowship program on sustainable energy, a number that was trimmed down to three in the final stage of the competition.

“Why did we choose three”  Because we see in so many people and teams so much potential and we just didn’t want to limit ourselves to one,” says Kuster.

Apart from a substantial seed funding, the winning groups are given access to the collaborative co-working community of Impact Hub, facilitated introductions and connections to like-minded peers, investors and experts on energy and entrepreneurship as well as continuous training, mentoring and coaching over the course of six months.

“What is happening now is they will go through a six-month incubation phase where they get grants—more than P500,000 in cash each and they will receive more than P300,000 in work space and mentorship,” says Kuster.

Topics: water hyacinth charcoal , Zherluck Shaen Rodriguez , Hazel May Pajotagana , HiGi Energy Pte. Ltd. , Impact Hub Fellowship Program on Sustainable Energy Solutions
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