Human waste as sustainable energy? These high schoolers made it happen.
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Green Mountain Energy

Leroy Mwasaru was a high school student at Kenya's prestigious Maseno School when a dorm room renovation created an unfortunate situation.

The school's outdoor latrines overflowed into the local water supply.

Understandably, this made some people quite upset. But Mwasaru saw this as an opportunity to turn something revolting into a revolution.


All GIFs from Makeshift/YouTube.

If he could redirect the overflowing human waste, it could give them cleaner water and help the school save money on fire and electricity.

See, at that same time, his school was spending a lot of money on firewood, which, like many Kenyan buildings, it used to fuel its kitchens, heat, and lights. It can be labor intensive to gather all that wood — and it's even more expensive to buy it.  Plus, all the soot and ash it creates is not good for the staff to consume on such a regular and large-scale basis.

Mwasaru and his friends speak with school staff about the wood-burning furnace. Image from MakeShift/YouTube.

So Mwasaru thought — why not use a biogas digester instead?

In his sophomore year biology class, he had learned how these digesters can harvest natural bacterial byproducts, such as human waste and turn it into natural gas energy through a process called anaerobic digestion.

"I initially researched renewable energy and biogas [digesters] just to satisfy my intellectual curiosity," Mwasaru explains over email. "After a while, it became so much more than biology — there was chemistry too. It got to solving problems my local community faced, such as lack of access to affordable renewable energy."

Students on the Maseno School campus. Image from MakeShift/YouTube.

Mwasaru recruited a group of friends, and over the next year, they built a working prototype biogas digester for the school.

His initial proposal was met with some level of resistance from the community. "I want to burn our poop to fuel the kitchen" isn't exactly the kind of thing anyone wants to hear from a high school student.

"That's what pushed me to make sure it came to pass, and made sure it benefited them. Sometimes it's the bad energy you get that pushes you to do stuff," Mwasaru says.

Their earliest tests began by collecting raw "fuel" in the form of cow dung, food waste, fresh cut grass, and eventually, water.

These components were then mixed together into a paste...

... that they poured into a plastic vessel — the digester itself.

The natural bacteria contained in all these ingredients was more than enough to spark the anaerobic process as it broke down the organic waste materials.

Over time, the dense physical waste drops down to the bottom of the container, separating from the bacteria's combustible gas byproduct, which can then be collected and used for energy.

Lighting a burner with harvested biogas.

Granted, there were a few hiccups along the way. "I have to credit the failures we have had," Mwasaru says. "Our very first bio-digester prototype had too much gas and exploded, so we had to re-learn and re-invent the model until it was stable."

After a little trial and error, Mwasaru and friends completed their first working prototype — and it was good enough to earn them a coveted spot at the Innovate Kenya startup camp.

See this video here of how his small-scale prototype worked here:

It demonstrated the basic way that the anaerobic process could be contained within a single plastic vessel with pipes to move the gas along, while directing all the other organic waste into the ground. It wasn't enough to power the entire school on its own, but it was a start.

Then, at the startup camp, the teens had the opportunity to work alongside student engineers from MIT to hone and refine their project.

Mwasaru, left, with his friends Amos Dede and Charles, who also worked on the biogas project. Image from MakeShift/YouTube.

In fact, the product that this high schooler devised was so impressive that it earned them funding from Global Minimum — a charitable organization that encourages young innovators and leaders in Africa — to build a second,  improved prototype.

"Leroy seeks to understand everything he doesn't know by asking probing questions, taking notes and experimenting to learn," said David Moinina Sengeh, an MIT Researcher who also serves as Global Minimum's board president, in an interview with CNN. "His curiosity to explore and learn from doing within a motivation to bring broader social change is something that we hope to see in all our youth and frankly everyone."

Mwasaru speaking at the One Young World summit in Arizona. Photo provided by Leroy Mwasaru.

As work began on the next, larger prototype, Mwasaru had the opportunity to travel to America to speak at prestigious conferences, such as Techonomy and One Young World.

He also returned home to the small village where his father still lives and helped to install a biogas digester there too, using the dung from his father's six cows. It generates enough gas for him to share with the other 30 houses in the village. Plus, it made things easier for the women in the village — another cause that Mwasaru is passionate about — who were sometimes spending up to 24 hours a week collecting firewood.

"When I deployed the Biogas pilot in my rural home, I mainly envisioned it as a way of leveraging sustainable renewable energy to make the world a better place through my community," Mwasaru says. "Now I believe through our activities that other sectors [such as women empowerment] could benefit immensely from the approach."

The dining hall at Maseno School. Image from MakeShift/YouTube.

The biogas digester project has since grown into a full-fledged startup/social enterprise called Greenpact — with Mwasaru serving as its CEO.

Since graduating from Maseno School, Mwasaru has taken a gap year to focus on the company's mission to address the lack of affordable renewable energy and proper sanitation that affects some 9 million Kenyan households.

He hopes to steer the company into an impactful organization that offers a wide range of products and services, including biogas digesters. He does have plans to go to college — but for now, Greenpact is his priority.

"I didn't see myself focusing on renewable energy but after doing some work in the field I figured out that I am actually more into renewable energy than I had imagined," Mwasaru says.

Now he's determined to show the world how to turn energy into opportunity and vice versa. The only way to do that is to stop seeing things as waste and start seeing them as resources instead.

Lainey and baby goat Annie. Photo courtesy of Lainey Morse
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Oftentimes, the journey to our true calling is winding and unexpected. Take Lainey Morse, who went from office manager to creator of the viral trend, Goat Yoga, thanks to her natural affinity for goats and throwing parties.

Back in 2015, Lainey bought a farm in Oregon and got her first goats who she named Ansel and Adams. "Once I got them, I was obsessed," says Lainey. "It was hard to get me off the farm to go do anything else."

Right away, she noticed what a calming presence they had. "Even the way they chew their cud is relaxing to be around because it's very methodical," she says. Lainey was going through a divorce and dealing with a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis at the time, but even when things got particularly hard, the goats provided relief.

"I found it impossible to be stressed or depressed when I was with them."

She started inviting friends up to the farm for what she called "Goat Happy Hour." Soon, the word spread about Lainey's delightful, stress-relieving furry friends. At one point, she auctioned off a child's birthday party at her farm, and the mom asked if they could do yoga with the goats. And lo, the idea for goat yoga was born.

A baby goat on a yoga student. Photo courtesy of Lainey Morse

Goat yoga went viral so much so that by fall of 2016, Lainey was able to quit her office manager job at a remodeling company to manage her burgeoning goat yoga business full-time. Now she has 10 locations nationwide.

Lainey handles the backend management for all of her locations, and loves that side of the business too, even though it's less goat-related. "I still have my own personal Goat Happy Hour every single day so I still get to spend a lot of time with my goats," says Lainey. "I get the best of both worlds."

Lainey with her goat Fabio. Photo courtesy of Lainey Morse

Since COVID-19 hit, her locations have had to close temporarily. She hopes her yoga locations will be able to resume classes in the spring when the vaccine is more widely available. "I think people will need goat yoga more than ever before, because everyone has been through so much stress in 2020," says Lainey.

Major life changes like Lainey's can come around for any number of reasons. Even if they seem out of left field to some, it doesn't mean they're not the right moves for you. The new FOX series "Call Me Kat", which premieres Sunday, January 3rd after NFL and will continue on Thursday nights beginning January 7th, exemplifies that. The show is centered around Kat, a 39-year old single woman played by Mayim Bialik, who quit her math professor job and spent her life's savings to pursue her dreams to open a Cat Café in Louisville, Kentucky.

Jeff Harry started making similar moves when he was just 10-years-old, and kept making them throughout his life. After seeing the movie "Big,"Jeff knew he wanted to play with toys for a living, so he started writing toy companies asking for next steps. He finally got a response when he was a sophomore in high school — the company told him he needed to become a mechanical engineer first.

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Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
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Amazon recently introduced Climate Pledge Friendly, "a new program to help make it easy for customers to discover and shop for more sustainable products." When you're browsing Amazon, a Climate Pledge Friendly label will appear on more than 45,000 products to signify they have one or more different sustainability certifications which "help preserve the natural world, reducing the carbon footprint of shipments to customers," according to the online retailer.

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