On a trip to Gambia in early 2014, Bianca Griffith visited a local wastewater dump with an enormous problem.
A friend of hers who works in government wanted her to see the Kotu Ponds in Gambia — the largest wastewater facility in the country — because recently, it couldn't handle its load. This meant that waste was overflowing onto the coast and surrounding areas, destroying the environment and spreading disease to animals, produce, and people.
"It's basically these giant lagoons filled with solid waste," Griffith recalls. "It looked like an island of trash."
She wanted to help.
Griffith is the co-founder and CEO of Agua Inc., a company that provides sustainable wastewater treatment systems in developing nations.
Established in 2013 with her fellow founder and COO Pedro Ortiz, the Agua Inc. team has installed over 200 water treatment systems around the world, some of which were completed before they had even formed a company. To date, they've done work everywhere from Kenya to Mali to the Dominican Republic.
Gambia, however, didn't have the resources to install a new system of their own, so, in mid-2014, Griffith and her colleagues established Agua Gambia Ltd., a subsidiary of Agua Inc. in partnership with the government of Gambia. By June 2015, after securing the proper licenses and contracts, they were officially in charge of the wastewater facility.
Unlike other projects, rather than just selling and installing their technology, Agua Inc. would take care of the entire service. By creating this new model, they could use private investments to finance the project and improve the current sewage infrastructure to make it more affordable, sustainable, and most importantly, 100% natural — something severely lacking in the developing world.
And how were they going to do this? With the help of good ol' green plants, of course.
Their method — called ABIS (Aquatic Biological Integrated Systems) — is a completely natural approach to waste management. It utilizes plants called macrophytes that have evolved to survive in waters where there is a lot of contamination and waste, explains Griffith.
These plants can absorb oxygen from the atmosphere and inject it into the water through their roots. This, in turn, helps creates an ecosystem where helpful bacteria can thrive and break down the harmful contaminants that they come across. While this is happening, the plant also absorbs nutrients from the water, purifying it.
In order to maximize how much surface area these plants can cover, Agua Inc. uses Agua Bio-Matrixes, which are devices that hold the plants in place and keep them floating at the surface level. This reduces the risk of clogging and allows the roots to increase their treatment capacity as they clean the water.
"We can do the same processes that a conventional wastewater treatment facility is able to do, these expensive mechanized ones, but do it without any energy inputs and without any chemicals," explains Griffith.
In addition to improving the environment, Agua Inc. also empowers the local community.
"We're trying to take the sewage facility and turn it into a garden and public space — make it beautiful," says Griffith. You see, Kotu is one of the premier tourist spots in Gambia, so by transforming the area that was once a sewage treatment area, they have the potential to usher in a more fruitful economy.
On top of that, Agua Inc. also ensures that the community is a big part of their growth. That's why 90% of their staff are locals, trained to take on the variety of roles needed in the waste management process. They also receive health insurance, more than standard pay, financial aid for additional studies, and opportunities for growth within the company.
Griffith hopes they can bring the water treatment technology to other places that need it soon.
That's the ultimate goal, she says.
Of course, no two places are exactly the same. But if their experience in Gambia has shown anything, it's that they can take a sewage system that's destroying the Earth and burdening the community and turn it into one that empowers locals, creates jobs, enriches the environment, and is sustainable for generations to come.