Tapping money from waste water

A Kenya-based company, Biobox East Africa, has seen a business opportunity in the recycling of waste water. Dinfin Mulupi reports

Thomas Mason

Thomas Mason

At 26 years old, Thomas Mason is already a successful entrepreneur running an innovative waste water treatment firm in East Africa.

Fresh from college, Mason, then 23, teamed up with colleagues Brian Macoun and Gianfranco Cicogna to start Biobox East Africa, a water cycle management firm specialising in the design, supply and installation of water- and waste water (sewage) treatment systems.

Armed with their savings of Ksh.900,000 (US$11,200), the three began operations in 2007 with their first deal involving the installation of a waste water recycling facility at a hospital in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

Opportunities in water and sanitation

Mason says preliminary research and discussions they undertook to establish where to invest pointed at water and sanitation as the key areas with abundant opportunities.

“We analysed the biggest challenges for Africa and realised that water and sanitation were intertwined with many of Africa’s major problems. Lack of clean water and effective sanitation are all directly related to increased healthcare costs and environmental degradation due to the spread of water borne diseases as well as ground water pollution,” says Mason.

Mason, a young Kenyan, who graduated from a university in South Africa, had firsthand experience on how innovative water treatment and utilisation methods can reduce water inaccessibility.

His goal was to create a mirror copy of what had been achieved in Southern Africa, Europe and Australasia.

However, various challenges lay ahead. Firstly, Mason had no background in engineering, yet would require extensive engineering research services and implementation. Secondly, he was introducing a new technology to the Kenyan market and would have to face the difficulties of convincing corporate companies and developers to invest in his products and services.

Recycling waste water

“What we do is to technically break down raw water into clean water. We offer various solutions – all aimed at recycling water for reuse. For example the recycled water can be used for flushing of toilets in buildings, irrigation of crops and lawns, cleaning of vehicles, etc,” explains Mason.

One of the solutions provided by the company is the Biobox Enpura sewage treatment and waste water recycling plant which treats effluent on site and produces clear, odourless and environmentally safe water. The system is modular in design and can treat both grey water (from laundries, baths, basins, kitchen sinks) and black water (toilet water).

“Due to inaccessibility to [power] in rural areas, we have devised a gadget that does not require electricity, the Biorock. It was developed to purify domestic sewage or waste water and utilises a natural biological treatment process, eliminating the need for electricity,” he explains.

Other solutions, provided by Biobox include, the Biobox MobiSewer and the Membrane Bioreactors, all which are used in sewage treatment but vary in size and application.

Mason says corporate firms and developers invest in the solutions to reduce funds spent in purchasing water from water tankers and to support initiatives of doing green business and conserving the environment, in line with Kenya’s Vision 2030.

The company’s clients include the new Wilson Business Park at Wilson Airport outside Nairobi, the Zain headquarters in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Langata Shopping Mall at Bomas of Kenya, Brookhouse International Schools, Standard Chartered Bank in downtown Nairobi, the Kenya Army, and many more.

“We will soon be setting up a cutting edge membrane waste water treatment system at the Fourways Housing Scheme, in Kiambu. This project features 800 newly constructed housing units by the Suraya Property Group,” he says.

“The technology will provide 800,000 litres of fresh reusable water for the developers – directly reducing construction, irrigation and water costs. The project, valued at Ksh.88 million (US$1.1 million), has proved that innovative technologies can be useful,” says Mason.

All sewage material from housing developments will be treated on site and managed by the developer, hence easing pressure on councils in handling the disposal of waste material.

With a current turnover of in excess of Ksh.160 million ($2 million) per annum and over 30 staff, Biobox has stretched its presence beyond Kenyan borders and now operates in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia, the DRC and Sudan.

African entrepreneur

Despite his fast rise to success, Mason remains a humble man keen on creating employment for other youths.

Mason reckons that success in entrepreneurship calls for patience and having a driven attitude to overcome challenges in order to achieve one’s goals.

He describes himself as patient, driven, innovative and a risk taker. Before he took on the risk of entrepreneurship, Mason, then aged 17, sailed from South Africa to Brazil and toured more than nine countries across South America, Europe and Northern Africa over a period of eleven months before he got stranded in Northern Sudan for twelve days without a single penny. Luckily a good Samaritan helped him out.

Plans for the future

Mason’s future plans for Biobox are to expand operations across all countries in Africa, creating job opportunities for 300 employees directly and a further 5000 indirectly.

“We are currently planning to move to a three acre site after completing the construction of a new factory, which will have laboratories for research, a training centre and main offices.

“Our vision is to allow Kenyans to directly invest in the environment by listing our company on the Nairobi Stock Exchange in the next five years,” he says.