Startup snapshot: Innovative solution to reuse greywater

Jesse Forrester

The 2019 Zayed Sustainability Prize, the UAE’s global award in sustainability, has honoured leaders whose work and spirit of enterprise has resulted in working solutions across communities around the world. With the highest number of applications coming from Africa, for the 2019 awards, this is testament to the growing role African innovators are playing in global innovation. Their technologies address real-life social, environmental, health and economic challenges, and reflect the aspirations of a new generation of innovators within a continent that has one of the world’s highest youth populations.

Picking up the Prize, in the Global High School’s Category – Sub-Saharan Africa Region, was the African Leadership Academy (represented by students Jesse Forrester and Wuntia Gomda), which will receive up to US$100,000 in prize funds to enhance their existing solution and develop other sustainability projects. Forrester answers our questions.

1. Give us your elevator pitch.

Creation is the closest we come to divinity and that is exactly what the Living Machine is. Described as an artificial wetland which turns greywater into clean re-usable water, it can be used to grow crops and inadvertently create a seed bank. Additionally, with the addition of solar panels, the Living Machine will cut electricity costs for the African Leadership Academy. Ultimately, our vision is to penetrate through townships in Johannesburg and reverse the trend of eating processed food, which is responsible for high obesity rates. I believe that we all have a part to play in poverty alleviation, food security and ultimately water stewardship.

2. How did you plan to finance your startup?

The Living Machine is housed under my startup called “Mazi: The Movement” that seeks to pioneer green tech in a variety of different industries. Together with a colleague, we applied for the Zayed Sustainability Prize for Sub-Saharan Africa on behalf of our high school, the African Leadership Academy. The jury saw it fit to select us as the winners of $100,000 – all of which will go into the building of the Living Machine that is estimated to reach over 10,000 people in the coming years. In my world, the sky isn’t the limit because there is none.

3. If you were given $1m to invest in your business/project now, where would it go?

I would further my green tech business, Mazi: The Movement. Going into two sectors to start with, I want to revolutionise the transport industry in East Africa and then expand into Africa as a whole. This will be done by creating electric matatus (minibus taxis). I want to ensure that there is order in the industry and ensure that the end-users, as well as the service providers, conduct business in a sustainable manner bearing in mind their own environmental impact. Secondly, I would hope to replicate Living Machines across the continent and make them as mainstream as possible: proving that nature does do it better than us. I want to make the Living Machines as much as a household term as Apple or Samsung.

4. What risks do you foresee your business/project facing?

Adoption. I think that change can be a scary thing for most people. Sustainability is not an exception to the rule. I want to take on two major sectors which have the possibility to rub a lot of people the wrong way. I also think that this is a major capital investment that relies on a variety of stakeholders, and getting everything to run smoothly would be a potential risk. Yet, the complexity is what makes it the most fun. It’s like one huge puzzle that I have to put together but the shapes are constantly changing.

5. So far, what has proven to be the most successful form of marketing?

Winning the Zayed Sustainability Prize has been the best way to market myself and my ideas. I have put myself in a position where I have a global platform to speak on sustainability. They really push through great ideas and really support youth from all over the world. Theirs is the business of sustainability and they happen to do it rather well.

6. Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.

I think it was when I made my first sale. I watched a lot of TV as a child and recreated my own version of a lemonade stand. I convinced my parents to buy Quencha/Oros that I would then mix with water and freeze to create ‘ice’. (Quite a creative name, I know). Starting out with $5 and ending up with $600 isn’t too bad for an 11-year-old, and so my love affair with entrepreneurship began. I realised that I could create whatever I put my mind to. This singular moment put me on the path that has brought me here today and will inform my life for years to come.

7. Tell us about your biggest mistake, and what you’ve learnt from it.

Listening to naysayers. Just having turned 20, a number of people would argue that I have not yet had enough experience to navigate the complexities of business and everything that it entails. The first time I started thinking about the Living Machine and writing the grant, I heard a lot of people say that I could not possibly write a successful grant to win $100,000. When I described my idea, linked to the idea of my company, they told me that I should think more about reading my books and earning an actual degree. One of my teachers actually said, “I just don’t think that you are capable.” For a few weeks, I thought they were right. Perhaps I was too young. On a call with my mother, I mentioned what I was thinking and even she was sceptical but told me one of her famous sayings. “You lose nothing by trying but everything if you don’t.” That stuck with me and a few months later here I am. I have come to realise that everyone is simply inspired by their experiences of what life has been to them and their experiences do not have to be your reality. I define what I want for myself and this experience resonated with my beliefs. I can and I will, that is my mindset.