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Water Today Title April 14, 2024

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Update 2022/6/23
Water and Soil

Solving South Africa’s Water Security Issues

The Compost Kitchen's waste-to-compost commitment begins with repairing the soil

By Suzanne Forcese

Interview with Himkaar Singh, Founder of The Compost Kitchen

“Solving civilization’s gravest problems requires integrated thinking. Returning organic matter to soil ensures a water secure future.” -- Himkaar Singh

Himkaar Singh, Founder of Johannesburg-based The Compost Kitchen made Forbes Africa 30 under 30 List 2022 for his commitment to solving South Africa’s water security challenge through the use of technology—a device named iCompost

While working in large corporations in Johannesburg and Durban, Civil Engineer, Himkaar Singh gained insight into one of the broader infrastructure needs of the country – Water Management.

A simple fundamental solution became a business model to improve the soil’s ability to hold water.

WATERTODAY learned more from the Founder of The Compost Kitchen.

WT: Please tell us your background and the journey that led you to founding your company, The Compost Kitchen.

Singh: In 2017 south Africa was experiencing major water scarcity issues, so I left the country to study for a master's in Water Management in Germany, Vietnam and Jordan for five months each – to get different perspectives on what the solution could be.

I found that we needed to repair our damaged soil’s ability to hold water by returning organic matter back to the soil. I thought the best way to do that was through a business model, so I then returned to SA to start a food waste recycling business with a larger vision of regenerative agriculture, which would eventually lead south Africa to water security.

WT: Water scarcity is increasingly becoming more of a global challenge. Can you describe for our viewers what ‘Day Zero’ was and how it impacted you and shaped your actions?

Singh: Day Zero was a day that was forecasted to be the day when the taps run dry in Cape Town in 2017. This reminded me of a day when I was in the 4th grade and I went on a school excursion to a local water utility where they educated us about water. I remember they warned us that there would be water shortages in the future if we didn’t save water now. Then when Day Zero was pending I thought, “We knew about this problem 20 years in advance, but it still happened. We’re doing so much intervention in Water Management but this still happened. We must be missing something.”

That’s when I decided to leave the country to step outside the problem to try and find what the solution could be.

WT: You have said, “Solving civilization’s gravest problems requires integrated thinking. Returning organic matter to soil ensures a water secure future.” please elaborate. What do you mean by ‘integrated thinking’?

Singh: When I studied for my bachelor's in Civil Engineering, although we talked a lot about hydrology, we never talked about soil water holding capacity. That’s because soil water holding capacity is mainly in the field of agriculture.

If the engineer is trying to make more water available to a settlement, they need to be thinking about rehabilitating the upstream soil. Additionally, if one wants to rehabilitate the soil, one needs to be thinking of the role of organic matter in soil structure. Furthermore, if one is thinking about how to put organic matter into the soil, they need to be understanding the waste management system.

Further still, if one wants to take advantage of the waste system, they have to know what are the habits of a family regarding food waste and how will an intervention be received by them.

We need to create more ‘generalists’ who can put all the puzzle pieces together to see what needs to be done.

WT: How does organic matter ensure water security?

Singh: Essentially organic matter acts like a sponge.

Water passes through soil differently depending on the soil structure. One of the most important components in soil is organic matter because it combines with clay molecules to create a clay-humus molecule (CLM).

The CLM is what makes the soil hold onto water in a form that is accessible to lifeforms in the soil including plants. The reason we need to pay particular attention to it is that the level of organic matter fluctuates, especially due to human activity on the soil. Therefore, our activities affect the ability of the soil to hold onto water, which means there could be less available in the system and therefore impact water security.

WT: How does your system work? What is vermicompost? Can you talk about the biology of the earthworm, please? Why should we recycle organic waste?

Singh: It’s an extremely simple method of feeding food waste to earthworms.

WATCH | Joburg recycling business gets top UN honour: 'Like winning an Oscar for sustainability'

Earthworms have been around for millions of years which means they have come to play a very important role in soil health. In their gut, there is bacteria which are fundamental in the soil food web, so when they are excreted through feces (also called vermicompost), they stimulate the life of the soil. We use vermicompost as a soil rehabilitator not only as a fertilizer.

WT: Please describe your business model and the circular economy. What stage are you at in your business? What’s next?

Singh: We started the business in 2019 and we started with a model where we collected food waste from households for a subscription fee, then we composted the waste into ‘vermicompost’ and then gave the vermicompost back to customers—creating a circular model.

Now as our brand has become quite well-known in SA, customers are requesting our services in areas which we can’t reach, so we’ve turned to technology. We sell a composting device which turns the food scraps into compost in a few hours, without mess, odour, flies, or rats. We are focusing on scaling this at the moment. Then we’ll be designing more technological devices in this theme.

WT: in 2021, the UN voted your company as one of the top 300 sustainable practices at the Global Entreps Awards. This year you were recognized in the Forbes Top 30 under 30. What has this global recognition meant for you?

Singh: Our mission of improving soil is a long-term one. It could be 50 years, and if we are planning for the long term then we want to make sure that we are aligned with where society is going.

The Sustainable Development Goals are an expression of the future that all the people on Earth want to see achieved one day, so the awards help us confirm that we are moving in the right direction.

WT: Although you are uniquely positioned in South Africa, how do you envision your concepts being executed in other parts of the world?

Singh: Each part of the world has a different challenge related to water – some have too much, some have too little. Or there is too much polluted water or too much fluctuation. Each country might consider following this principle: Find the root of the problem—where a small intervention would have a multiplier effect on the whole system – and devise an appropriate solution.

WT: Are we devising solutions worldwide?

Singh: The Brundtland Report, which could be considered the start of Sustainable Development, came out in 1987 and since then we have been talking about sustainability.

It is 2022, things still seem to be getting worse even though we are running out of time. I think this is because we are thinking that people aren’t aware of the problem because we don’t see them acting on it.

But what I’ve observed is that people are aware. They care. But they don’t have a way to take action. For example, what is someone in an apartment to do with the food waste if there is no collection system, no device which can compost the food waste without fouling the apartment?

What if they can’t afford either a collection system or a device? What if their culture forbids handling food waste?

We need to focus more on creating actual solutions that meet the needs of people wanting to take action.

WT: Please leave us with one last thought, something that every individual everywhere in the world can relate to. Some simple obvious observation that has a simple possible solution.

Singh: A banana peel weighs a third of the total weight of a banana (measure it if you don’t believe me!). If you buy a bunch of bananas for $3.00, you are paying $1.00 for the peels. If you buy a bunch of bananas every week, in one year you would have spent $52.00 on peels.

And that’s just banana peels! Think of all the other food waste thrown out.

But here’s the troubling bit...After you throw the peel in the garbage, it reaches the landfill where it gets covered with tons of junk and therefore degrades under ‘anaerobic’ conditions which produces methane – a strong greenhouse gas.

The process of ‘composting’ is an aerobic process because air is continually mixed in with the organic waste, making it release CO2 instead of methane.

This means that by purchasing peels and then throwing them away, you are effectively paying to increase climate change.

The peels are not the problem. Nor is waste. We will always need peels and we will always not be able to eat them. The problem is that the peels reach the landfill and degrade under anaerobic conditions. If they were to degrade under aerobic conditions (the way they would in the soil), they would be carbon neutral and return to the natural nutrient cycle.

The cost of our organic waste in landfills far exceeds the cost of composting technology.


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