#sfrome: New employment opportunity in Uganda: Transforming water hyacinth to paper (186)

By Rima Alcadi

Hyacinth, says Robert Atuhaire, is a nuisance in Uganda (and it is a nuisance also in Ghana, we are told by Ambassador Evelyn Anita Stokes-Hayford, who also participated in this session). People have difficulties navigating the lake, as their boats get trapped, fishing is hampered and even the fish and biodiversity suffer, at this nasty, prolific and pervasive weed suffocates them. This is the dark side of hyacinth. The bright side of hyacinth is that these weeds can be used as a valuable resource - to make paper. What motivated Robert was to reframe this environmental issue, so that it is an opportunity rather than a problem.

How does Robert’s business work? Poor people in his community go to the lake and pick the hyacinth and they sell it to Robert, who collects the hyacinth and transports it to his small firm. There, the hyacinth is dried (it takes 4 days for it to dry as he does not have the machinery) and then shredded, using scissors. Robert explains that it is often necessary to improvise, “we use what we have.”

The dried shreds are then put in saucepan, to cook – or “digested”, in technical terminology. Sodium hydroxide is added to the shreds, to get rid of the lignin – which reduces the quality and shelf life of paper. Lignin also makes paper brown rather than white. After about two to three hours of digestion, the pulp is washed under running hot water, to reduce the residual lignin. The pulp then needs to be introduced in a beating machine. The machine Robert has was locally fabricated and runs via an electric motor (see the picture below). It grinds the fibres, increasing the bonding potential. This stage is when starch is introduced (Robert uses cassava flour) to increase the mechanical strength of the paper. He also introduces rosin to increase the water resistance of the paper; natural dyes to colour the paper; and aluminium sulphate to improve the drainage properties. After 30 minutes of beating, the pulp is ready for paper making.

The next stage is to drain out the water from the pulp and press it. Robert uses a thin piece of cloth to do so – it is a handmade process. The roughness of the paper is determined during the pressing process. Finally, the product is taken out to dry.

Once dried, the paper is peeled off the net, trimmed and used for making various products, such as shopping bags, gift bags for ceremonies, photo-frames… Robert tells us that the limit to the range of products he can produce is the sky!

Robert says that he is also mixing water hyacinth with agricultural residues, for example wheat straw, banana fibres, sugar cane residues, etc. to make various kinds of paper. Moreover, he mixes waste paper in the hyacinth pulp too – he collects this from universities and business offices.

What more? Well, Robert is also interested in using hyacinth for biogas - because he is deeply concerned about the energy crisis. People are destroying the forests looking for firewood and being dragged to court. Women have gotten raped in forests, while collected firewood. So biogas is coming in handy and hyacinth is a valuable resource in this case too.

What an amazing session! Robert is what we refer to as a “social entrepreneur.” Robert studied Wood Science & Technologies at university and, as soon as he graduated, he started this business. Robert’s project is saving Ugandans who depend on the lake for food and water. The physical removal of the weed ensures uprooting of the entire plant from water, eliminating its chances of regeneration. This effort has led to a vibrant handmade paper industry with a number of employment opportunities, including in the collection of hyacinth, processing the weed into paper and marketing. Water hyacinth removal also protects aquatic biodiversity and no trees are cut for paper making. Robert’s biggest challenge is securing finance, but with his optimism, creativity and energy, he is able to cope. He attracts clients through his blog, face-to-face marketing and word of mouth. His logo is “Hyapaper: the brighter side of water hyacinth.”

For more information, please contact
Robert Atuhaire at Pafor Enterprises (U)Ltd /Hyapaper Project - UGANDA
telephone: +256778934404
email: robatuhaire at