From waste to value: project aims to improve food security in Africa

Written by Emma Meurs, on 16 June 2022

Agriculture is a huge social and economic influence in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 60% of the population are smallholder farmers who together contribute almost a quarter of the region’s GDP. By using materials traditionally regarded as waste to improve the soil, farmers could produce a larger variety of food. IHE Delft PhD Candidate Omar Abdeldayem focuses his research on finding ways to do that.

Omar Abdeldayem is part of a European Union-funded project called Bio4Africa, which completed its first year and is composed of a consortium of 12 European and 13 African partners, including universities, NGOs, and farmers. The project investigates the use of typha, cashew apple, animal manure and other agricultural waste for productive purposes.

“Waste from invasive plants like typha are usually just left somewhere and starts rotting. In the Bio4Africa project, we try to upgrade the waste to a value-adding product called biochar which  farmers can use to make their soil more fertile. This type of waste can also be used as an alternative biofuel instead of coal, or in the removal of contaminants from water and air,” said Omar, who earned his MSc at IHE Delft after following the Erasmus Mundus master programme in Environmental Technology and Engineering (IMETE).

But before biomass waste can be transformed into a valuable resource, water has to be removed. This can be tricky and expensive, so Omar and his colleagues are looking into methods that skip this step.

“We are experimenting with different techniques to valorize waste; one of these techniques we specialize in is called HTC, or hydrothermal carbonization. This is a thermochemical process performed in water, which eliminates the problems of using waste that has too much water in it. Normally, waste needs to be dried before being used for other purposes. This is not the case here as it can be used being wet,” he said.

Omar and his research supervisors are working to optimize the HTC process through lab experiements and through numerical modelling, which uses computational fluid dynamics and machine learning to simulate and optimize the HTC process.

You can see the machine learning model as a child: we try to teach this kid how to learn and predict by getting it trained on reading data, and adapt bit by bit to make itself smarter
Omar Abdeldayem
PhD Candidate

The technology has great potential for places like Senegal, where biochar could fill many needs, said Lat Grand Ndiaye, Professor in Renewable Energies at the University Assane Seck of Ziguinchor in Senegal and national coordinator in the Bio4Africa project: “This compact technology simplifies the production of biochar. Farmers can use this alternative fuel to increase their production of biogas. Importantly, Senegalese households would have an alternative to charcoal and firewood, which is polluting and bad for people’s health.”

Omar’s research aims to optimize the HTC process and maximize outcomes so that communities in Africa can independently process waste into valuable resources. His motivation is a wish to make an impact, to improve farmers’ lives and improve food security.

“I feel like I’m contributing to a real challenge. Even in my home country Egypt, I feel people can benefit from this method by adding value to wet agricultural waste. Also, we talk a lot about water and wastewater challenges around the world, but few people take the aspect of solid waste management into account. I hope my story helps to show how we too can contribute to real solutions,” he said.

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