The gaunt scorched bushes flanking the fence to the sewage sludge-processing site begun to shake as Samuel Obong’s forked hoe struck the rich ‘earth’ fermenting under a shade roofed of transparent sheets.
In the background, the sound of an automated machine molding honeycomb briquettes roared and harmonised with the singing of the manual molding machine that kept spitting stick briquettes one by one.
Along the lowered shade are seven anaerobic plastic tanks that allow the liquid part of the sewer to be settled and strained for an adjacent lagoon.
It sounds kind of filthy that since 2016, Obong’s daily living has skillfully derived from processing human fecal matter into cooking briquettes, but it is a reality he has faced since then when he started.
Obong aged 32, is the only young man in Northern Uganda to dare such a venture that has turned him into a millionaire despite stigma that he bore from his peers initially.
Initiating the venture
From no professional background, the Senior Six leaver had worked with Airtel Uganda as a sales agent for seven years up to 2016 when he opted out to venture into septic tank emptying and briquette making.
“What I am doing is not my profession but you know life is all about innovation. You have to seek multiple alternatives till you find the fitting one and I finally took to deal with sewage considering its virgin market,” he says.
Latrine emptying and briquette making he said are enterprises whose markets are still untapped and have great potentials as government roots for environmentally friendly energy sources in a bid to fight climate change.
According to him, the decision to invest in pit-emptying and sludge processing was based on two grounds; to save the environment by coming up with environmentally-friendly sources of energy and also to reap from it since it is still a virgin market. “Only a few people can afford electricity and its appliances as an alternative source of energy for domestic consumption but if we manage our sludge very well, we again re-use it for making briquettes which in the long run will save our trees from being cut for cooking,” he noted. In order to attain a global goal of an environmentally sustainable society, it is crucial to develop effective procedures for the management of sewage sludge he says.
“Sewage sludge” or “bio solids” represents the insoluble residue produced during wastewater treatment and subsequent sludge stabilization procedures, such as aerobic or anaerobic digestion.
With only Shs2m as starting capital, Obong said he fabricated a molding machine and the draining component (gulper machine) at a cost of Shs1.7m and the balance was to periodically hire a truck to carry barrels for pit emptying.
Obong’s daily schedule has to do with moving around to look for clients whose pits have to be emptied while the other workers dry the sludge and make it into briquettes.
“People drop clothes, rubbish, bottles and so many things in the pit latrines; so we clean all these using the gulper machine,” he noted.
Because the sludge is dried to make briquettes, he says that rubbish is screened from it through the disposal tank. It takes about one or two months for the sludge to dry depending on the amount you have put. The purpose of drying it is to give people who want to use it for manure in their gardens before it is carbonised. “After drying, it undergoes carbonation, a process through which all gases are removed,” he noted.
From the carbonising unit, the carbonated content is moved to the production room where it is mixed with charcoal dust, clay soil or molasses (which acts as a binder).
The mixture is molded into honeycomb (which serves industrial cooking like in schools and others) or sticks briquettes which are domestically used in stoves.
“Stick briquettes when lit in a stove burn for between two to three hours without being added to get your food ready, saving more energy than a charcoal stove,” he tipped.
From the savings he makes out of the enterprise, he has been able to buy three more molding machines for making the briquettes and purchase a three-wheeled motorcycle that he uses to transport the briquettes to the market.
He believes that the initiative has not only helped him to maintain his family and support his siblings at school but has equally impacted in the lives of other youth whom he has employed.
“There are 12 people who are employed here, they do molding, others dry the sludge while other do latrine emptying and sales, from which they earn salaries,” he said.
According to Obong, the biggest challenge with briquettes is widening the market as most people in rural areas still use charcoal and fire word. He also lacks the adequate finance to expand the business.
His bigger vision is to help save the rapidly degrading environment, he says wants to begin offering training to youth on building alternative energy sources.
“Plans are underway to buy a truck that will help us in transport,” he says. Obong adds that plans are underway to install additional machinery at the plant early next year to boost efficiency using “advanced processing machinery.”
“Our plans to expand into up to seven locations over the next five years are also on course. There are ongoing discussions with prospective partners and investors to participate in this growth,” says Obong.