Slice of MIT (Alumni blog)
There was a moment in April 2018 when Danielle Wood ’05, SM ’08, PhD ’12 could go no farther. In her research she often looks toward the cosmos, but on this day, she was confronted by an earthbound obstacle: if she and her companions pushed their motorboat ahead, the outboard engine would strangle itself on a thick tangle of roots, stems, and leaves. Open blue water should have rippled before her, “but instead it was fully green,” says Wood, one of MIT’s newest faculty members. A thick mat of water hyacinth was choking this section of the So River in the West African country of Benin.
An invasive species from the other side of the world, the plant is wreaking havoc across the waterways of Africa. “It creates areas of standing water that allow mosquitos to breed and spread disease,” Wood says. “And it also blocks fishing, boating, and other economic activities.”
Wood, whose background includes satellite design, systems engineering, and technology policy, traveled to the coastal city of Cotonou to meet with Beninese entrepreneur Fohla Mouftaou, cofounder of Green Keeper Africa, which has a creative approach to managing the water hyacinth. The startup pays community members to harvest the plant and converts it into an absorbent fiber called GK-SORB that removes oil-based waste. Green Keeper Africa delivers GK-SORB kits to West African companies who use them to clean small and large oil spills, and then it collects the used kits for proper disposal.