Kenya transforms an invasive plant into an industry

The invasive water hyacinth plant has been impossible to remove from Lake Victoria, where it is killing fish, but Kenyans have turned the plant into a variety of lucrative products.

Kipchumba Some
A fisherman weaves water hyacinth into a couch.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

When the invasive water hyacinth first appeared on the shores of Lake Victoria – the world’s second-largest freshwater lake – some 20 years ago, environmentalists predicted the worst. Both the lake and thousands of fishermen in the three East African countries (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania) whose livelihoods depended on it were considered at risk.

True to their predictions, the weed has severely obstructed navigation on the lake and led to a significant drop of the common tilapia fish in the lake.

But after several attempts by the government and international bodies to have the plant removed failed, the locals decided to exploit the economic opportunities presented by the weed. Fishermen came together to form a community-based organization to harvest and process the water hyacinth and manufacture a variety of unusual products. The fishermen discovered, to their surprise, that the list of products that can be made from the weed is nearly limitless: Cards, lampshades, sturdy furniture, baskets, footwear, cordage, handbags, fodder for animals, and gas are just some of the many hyacinth-crafted products. They sell for between a dollar (cards) and $1,000 (woven couches), depending on size and design.

Along the Nile, dried water hyacinth are twisted into ropes used to make makeshift bridges across the mighty river. And some culinary adventurers have even experimented with a water hyacinth brew as a substitute for tea.

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