Eastern Cape ThulaniBono

Social Entrepreneur Thulani Bono is seen in East London, South Africa, on April 4, 2019. // Mpumelelo Macu/Red Bull Content Pool

Power to the people: Eastern Cape innovator turns waste into biogas energy

Beyond the gravel roads and rolling foothills of rural Eastern Cape, a social pioneer aims to provide power to the people through dignified sanitation solutions.

Eastern Cape ThulaniBono

Social Entrepreneur Thulani Bono is seen in East London, South Africa, on April 4, 2019. // Mpumelelo Macu/Red Bull Content Pool

For Thulani Bono, the seeds of sustainability and dignity were planted at a young age on the rural outskirts of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. Like many public institutions in the area, Maweni Junior Secondary School lacked decent facilities and was debilitated by a chronic shortage of resources; multifaceted deficiencies which would ultimately serve as a catalyst for social innovation.

These disparities — between rural and urban institutions, between the state’s inefficiency and private ingenuity — became clearer when Bono moved to a Model C school and, ultimately, to vocational Technicon in East London.

“I got exposed to schools that were better equipped,” explains Bono while elaborating on the personal circumstances which led to a heightened state of social awareness.

“There’s been a yearning within, that, one day, I wish that people can experience what urban learners experience at school. A simple thing, like a proper sanitation facility; to go to a clean toilet and come out feeling dignified.”

In Qokolweni, Bono and his classmates would circumvent deadly pit latrines, which have been responsible for multiple fatalities garnering national condemnation, in favour of dense Aloes growing just beyond the primary school’s premises.

It’s estimated that 4 500 schools — mostly located in rural areas — are still reliant on pit latrine toilets, a number which was much higher during Bono’s childhood in the Eastern Cape. And while President Cyril Ramaphosa recently reaffirmed government’s commitment to decommissioning the hazardous ‘holes in the ground’, progress has been delayed by bureaucracy and mismanagement.

Biogas digestion: Simple solutions for complex rural problems

Instead of relying on government to lead the charge for safer sanitation facilities, Bono combined his electrical engineering expertise with the intrinsic determination to strengthen social change. Adapting an urban wastewater project developed by Rhodes University to suit the needs of rural communities, Bono looked to address deep-rooted socioeconomic issues beyond the initial pit latrine predicament.

The Eastern Cape — like other provinces in the country which are characterised by comparatively large rural populations — faces complex socioeconomic challenges. Inadequate access to basic services, coupled with geographical isolation, unemployment, meagre infrastructure and a lack of resources present a deep-rooted rural conundrum.

While the search for safe sanitation formed the foundation of Bono’s innovative approach, it soon became apparent that biogas digestion — used as a sustainable alternative to the resource-heavy flush system — could answer other critical questions facing rural communities.

“In around 2012, when I stumbled upon the solution, that’s when I really began to push as hard as I can and learn as much as I can,” says Bono, noting that the collaborative relationship forged with Rhodes University led to other avenues of ingenuity.

“It’s been around for thousands of years; biogas digestion. We built a self-contained system which ensured that there was no smell and no bacteria or viruses that can affect the community. So you can have a school or community that is completely off the grid in terms of sanitation.

The system adds further value by producing biogas which is used to generate biogas energy for heating or cooking.”

Bono’s multifaceted sanitation solution — which addresses the issue of inadequate electricity supply in rural communities by promoting renewable energy — goes one step further in aiding the lifeblood of South Africa’s far-flung settlements. Sustainable agriculture defines the microeconomic makeup of rural life, with locally grown produce sustaining the communities’ need for nutritional sustenance and trade.

In addition to producing by-products which can be used to power schools and communities, the biogas system also delivers organic fertiliser which is used to great effect in bolstering agricultural growth.

Sustainable schools, communities and municipalities

Bono’s project, Finishes of Nature Global, has made an indelible impact on dozens of rural schools in the Eastern Cape, with pilot programmes founded in education expected to reach municipal level in 2021. Maintaining a strong entrepreneurial spirit to complement social awareness, Finishes of Nature Global has spread across the province, from the rural outskirts of Mthatha to farming communities near Butterworth and schools in Mt Frere.

“There have been some installations at a smaller scale, with individual schools and centres, but now we are running a programme where we’ll be operating in 30 schools in the Eastern Cape,” explains Bono while adding that the next hurdle would be expanding into the rest of South Africa with a scale-forward approach.

“We’ll be assisting between 7 000 and 12 000 learners. We’re bringing the solution for safe, dignified and hygienic sanitation where there will also be food production and energy generation.

These three elements give learners the opportunity to have their own in-house laboratory in the schools. Learners that are doing agriculture can go and work in the food garden. Learners that are doing natural sciences, they can look at the biogas digester to see the process and how it unfolds.”

A network of social impact entrepreneurs

Bono’s successes have been complimented by meaningful collaborations and investment initiatives which have allowed Finishes of Nature Global to expand the project to schools and communities in need.

Working in the public space has necessitated cooperation with local government structures and departments. Bono says that he maintains a good relationship with the Department of Economic Development which has played an integral role in funding the school sanitisation programme. Additionally, Bono has received support from the Eastern Cape Development Corporation and Department of Education.

“At the end of the day, it is public infrastructure,” explains Bono. “Once we have added value to that particular school, which is a state asset, that then reverts to the ownership of the school which effectively means ownership of the state.”

Finishes of Nature Global has also received financial assistance from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, being one of five companies selected in South Africa to benefit from funding for innovation in the water and sanitation sector.

More recently, Bono has had the opportunity to grow within a global network of social impact entrepreneurs coordinated, initially, by the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy which has since developed into Further; a close-knit support team aimed at evolving purpose-driven solutions in South Africa.

“It started off very nervously for me… I qualify as a lone wolf, happy in my own corner doing things by myself,” Bono notes while reflecting back on his first encounter with the social impact collective.

“Now, I can say that the impact of Amaphiko and Further has been life changing. I’ve found myself with brothers and sisters who I can really call my brothers and sisters. I’ve found myself with friends that I can really vouch for; people with integrity and a genuine interest in how you are doing and what you are doing.

Right now, it’s difficult to imagine oneself without that group of people. This is a community that I feel very good belonging to. Everybody involved is genuinely pushing their own personal and community development, driven by the goodness of their hearts.”

Bono has emphasised the importance of business savvy support networks, a founding element of Further’s investment-forward approach to power sustainable solutions through entrepreneurial expertise.

“An important aspect of belonging to Further is the great network it provides,” says Bono. “There are opportunities to collaborate amongst ourselves, to build working relationships.”

“It’s fulfilling and motivating to know that your efforts are not in vain. There are people who benefit from it but there are also people who look up to it, people who see value in it.

When you’ve struggled for so many years trying to put something together and then comes the structure that Further provides to say ‘we’re working by your side’… it gives me energy.”

Further founder, Ian Calvert, has lauded Thulani Bono’s search for sustainable solutions, adding that the young innovator had overcome steep entrepreneurial trials in the early stages of the project’s development.

“Thulani is the embodiment of resilience and perseverance – he has a deep personal connection to the problem he is solving, and now has the funding and resources to fulfil his vision.”