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Brewing a Future :: Zero Emissions in Namibia

A southern African brewery spawns a chicken farm, a fish farm, a mushroom plantation, a Spirulina plantation, an earthworm farm, jobs, and hope

In natural systems, there is no such thing as waste. Everything that’s excreted, exhaled, or exhausted from one organism is used by another. Some of the most innovative industrial designers are following nature’s model and turning waste into valuable by-products.

Waste is particularly unacceptable in poor regions of the world, where food, water, and energy are scarce. Gunter Pauli, founder of the Zero Emissions Research Institute, and George Chan, a civil engineer from Mauritius, are working primarily in the Third World on designing industrial processes that turn waste products into valuable inputs for other processes – particularly those associated with meeting basic needs.

As Paul Hawken says, "Waste is too expensive; it’s cheaper to do the right thing."

There’s a new brewery in Namibia in southern Africa that sounds too good to be true: "Good beer, no chemicals, no pollution, more sales, and more jobs." When the chairman of Namibia Breweries heard from George Chan, an engineer, that it is possible to brew beer and generate no waste, he could not believe it. But as a veteran in the brewing industry with 60 years of experience in the German tradition, Werner List was willing to listen.

To his surprise, he found that Chan’s proposals were simple and made a lot of sense. The Mauritius-born civil engineer was simply applying the principles of nature: whatever is waste for one is food for someone else.

Namibia Breweries had decided to construct a sorghum brewery in Tsumeb, a five-hour drive north of Windhoek, the capital city; the question was, could the zero-emissions concept be applied in the desert? Funded by the United Nations University, George Chan undertook a field visit in the summer of 1995 and concluded that it was not only feasible, it was necessary.

Less than 18 months later, on January 31, 1997, the first phase of the project was inaugurated by Namibian President Sam Nujoma.

The system, engineered and built under the supervision of George Chan, is the result of extensive research and design over the Internet. Teams of scientists from all parts of the world worked together in cyberspace to figure out how to make best use of the spent grain, the alkaline waste water, and the CO2 gases that make up 98 percent of the waste from the brewery. The solutions they developed turn all waste into products that are particularly valuable in a country that lacks water, food, and cash.

Traditionally, spent grain left over after the brewing process is given away to farmers to use as cattle feed. However, cattle cannot digest the fibers, and the result is a lot of gas. Cattle are the second largest source of methane gas, one of the major causes of global warming. But this lignin-cellulose component, which makes up 70 percent to 80 percent of the spent grain, can be broken down by mushroom enzymes.

So, George Chan brought S.T. Chang, professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, to Namibia. This world expert on mushrooms trained the Namibians in the cultivation of this high-priced product, which the country traditionally imported. Each day, the brewery will produce four tons of spent grain – enough to grow one ton of mushrooms. Professor Chang is confident that Namibia will soon be exporting rather than importing mushrooms.

The spent grain is up to 26 percent protein. Wasting protein is unacceptable, particularly in Africa. So George Chan, in cooperation with Namibia University, is initiating the cultivation of earthworms, which are to be used as chicken feed. For a country that imports all chicken feed and 80 percent of its chickens, this is a blessing.

Not a drop of water ...

When George Chan learned that Namibia Breweries had secured a license to extract ground water, but planned to discharge 80 percent of it, he designed a system that ensures not a single drop will be lost. Normally, the law requires that the waste water, which is alkaline, undergo an expensive chemical treatment process to make it pH neutral. Instead, the alkaline water will be used for the cultivation of Spirulina algae, which is up to 70 percent protein – exactly what is needed locally to fight child malnutrition. Instead of wasting protein, the brewery becomes a protein factory, and the waste water will generate additional revenues instead of extra costs.

The residual water is then channeled to fish ponds where fish farming is introduced. As in China and Vietnam, multiple species of fish and aquatic plant life will mimic a natural ecosystem, keeping disease to a minimum and maintaining the health of the ponds. By producing 15 tons of fish per hectare per year, the brewery will also become a fish factory.

The two most needed ingredients for a fish farm are water and feed. Namibia traditionally had neither. Now, it has abundant water for fish farming and feed provided by the earthworm/chicken/mushroom waste streams.

There is more; the chicken manure goes through a digester and produces methane gas. The gas, which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, is used as a fuel, reducing demand on wood which, for 80 percent of the Tsumeb population, is the main source of energy.

The Namibian brewery will produce a total of 12 products in addition to beer. This integrated biosystem will produce seven times more food, fuel, and fertilizer than a conventional operation and four times as many jobs.

The opening of the brewery in Tsumeb, Namibia, is not just a local affair. Representatives from around Africa, and Asia, Australia, Europe, and Latin America will attend a special training course to be held in Windhoek. This course is aimed at unleashing entrepreneurship and creativity, resulting in more jobs and a better use of natural resources.

Meanwhile, at the UN University, we have expanded our research on the application of the zero- emissions concept to vegetable oils (palm, coconut and olive), construction materials (cement, bamboo), paper, fruits, sugar, seaweed, and sisal, with a particular emphasis on techniques and products that can be used in the developing world.

The industrial model of the future

William McDonough, dean of the University of Virginia’s school of architecture, has said, "Only industry is capable of producing things no one wants."

Zero emissions is simply the continuation of the drive of industry toward higher levels of productivity and away from waste. After zero defects (total quality), zero accidents (total safety), zero inventory (just-in-time), zero emissions means that all raw materials will be fully used.

This model could well prove the economists and politicians wrong. They believe that in order to increase the productivity of a company, you have to reduce jobs.

We are showing that when you focus on the productivity of the raw materials, you can generate more income, higher returns, and more jobs, while at the same time eliminating pollution. This is the industrial model of the future. s

Professor Keto Mshigeni, a respected botanist and pro-vice chancellor of the University of Namibia, helped introduce the zero-emission concept to Namibia. Email: kmshigeni@unam.na

Gunter Pauli is founder and director of the Zero Emissions Research Institute (ZERI) at the UN University in Tokyo. He is the former CEO of Ecover, a Belgian company that makes natural cleaning products. His most recent book, Breakthroughs: What Business Can Offer Society, 1996, is published by Epsilon Press, Surrey, UK.

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