Alumnus wins prestigious engineering innovation prize

[Article by Daniel Bugon]

Faculty of Engineering alumnus Noël N’guessan was recently awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2021 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation with a compact equipment that farmers can use to ferment their biowaste into compost or biogas and to generate an income from it.

The Ivorian, who obtained a BEng (Chemical Engineering) degree at Stellenbosch University (SU) in 2012, says his innovation, Kubeko, was inspired by his desire to increase income among smallholder farmers and access to opportunity in his homeland.

“As a process engineer, I focused on the processes that have the most potential impact and we concluded as a team that bioprocesses that can use micro-organisms at ambient temperature and pressure conditions, offered the most potential. So we focused on composting and anaerobic digestion.”

His team, with whom he designed Kubeko in 2018, consists of his wife and business partner Louise Bijleveld whom he met at SU in 2010 and other Ivorian engineers and finance and marketing professionals.

“Less than 15% of farmers in Côte d’Ivoire apply any form of fertilizer and therefore soil fertility has declined and yields are low,” says N’guessan. “The Kubeko product line produces fertilizers that users can apply directly on their own fields to increase their income or save on fertilizer expenditure.”

As the winner of the competition, N’guessan received £25,000 in prize money. But he says the real reward was the expert sessions covering strategic business and product development which helped to reduce the production costs of the Kubeko.

“We were assigned a product mentor that contributed to our strategy to progressively shave off costs at each step of assembly. We were also given advice and insights on approaches to scale the sales of hardware products to low-income groups.”

“Furthermore, we benefited from eight months of assistance and access to experts covering all aspects of our venture. This was highly valuable as we were able to get direct assistance on pressing issues ranging from IP strategy to retaining key HR personnel.”

Prior to winning the competition, the team sold 50 units of the Kubeko product line. They have also been commissioned by the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development in Côte d’Ivoire, as part of its national composting and biowaste strategy, to conduct a study and outline recommendations on best practices for composting, and to train stakeholders on small scale composting and anaerobic digestion using Kubeko and other methods.

“The plan is to continue to grow our company, LONO, and awareness of our product line. Introducing more engineers to bioprocesses, product development, product design and prototyping is also one of our big focus areas as it will contribute to overall development of the sector and the economy,” says N’guessan. “Starting a company is definitely a seven- day-a-week job, so I look forward to spending more time with my young child as the business and team grow and I get better at balancing work and life”

He credits SU and the Engineering Faculty in particular, for the role it played in his development as a person, an innovator and an entrepreneur.

“At Stellenbosch, I met some of the people that would have the most profound influence on me in my adult life, including my wife. I also had my first experience of biowaste processing with my Bachelor thesis subject being the recommissioning of a pilot biodiesel production line of used cooking oil as the feedstock. I saw what it took to develop a new process from fundamental research to prototyping and piloting, and was impressed with how ambitious the university was in terms of technology with global relevance”

The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, founded by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering in 2014, is Africa’s biggest prize dedicated to engineering innovation, and has a proven track record of identifying successful engineering entrepreneurs. Now in its seventh year, it supports talented sub-Saharan African entrepreneurs with engineering innovations that address crucial problems in their communities in a new and appropriate way.

Photograph: Noël N’guessan