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Rural school runs on fumes

Tucked against the rolling hills of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, the Three Crowns Rural School is turning its kitchen scraps, and agricultural and human waste into methane gas for cooking daily school meals for 150 hungry children, and nutrient-rich fertiliser, and is even recycling its water.

Using an integrated biogas system, this public school in the Lady Frere district is teaching learners, the community, and engineers around the country a dignified, low-maintenance, sustainable, ecological way of dealing with water, waste, and energy. According to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), if a business-as-usual approach is followed, South Africa’s freshwater resources will be fully depleted by 2030, unable to meet the needs of people or industry. “The problems will be made worse by more frequent incidents of water pollution and increased costs of water treatment,” said the 2010 CSIR report author, Peter Ashton1.

Recycling precious water at Three Crowns Rural School

With over 40% of South Africa’s dams affected by eutrophication (the process by which water becomes too nutrient-rich and therefore prone to toxic algae blooms); acid mine drainage threatening to poison the water table around heavily populated Gauteng Province; and, according to the Department of Water Affair’s 2010/11 Green Drop report2, 56% of the nation’s 821 sewage works either in a “critical state” or delivering a “very poor performance”, arid South Africa must urgently develop economical ways of effectively recycling its naturally scarce water resources.

Over the past four years, the Development Fund (DF) of the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) has assisted the Chris Hani District Municipality (CHDM) with a suite of environmental management tools. As part of this initiative, a pilot school-to-community project – part of the municipality’s Environmental Management System Programme – was initiated in 2010 at the Three Crowns Rural School, forming part of a programme driven by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA), called the Sustainability Commons. The programme involves investments in public spaces and places, with an emphasis on promoting a rich and diverse pool of sustainability-focused technologies, tools and learning.

Described by the DBSA as “a robust, low-maintenance sanitation solution” for 170 pupils and staff members, the school’s zero-waste system feeds organic waste from the school’s kitchen, gardens and toilets into an anaerobic ‘digester’ (an oxygen-limiting, gas-tight enclosed pit) where microbial action breaks down the waste, creating methane biogas in the process.

The digested effluent is sent to a series of ponds, where first the remaining pollutants combine with oxygen and are transformed into a nutrient-rich algal slurry that makes excellent fertiliser. The water that emerges from the first pond shuttles to another, where fish like tilapia can feed on remaining algal content. The fishpond ecosystem produces another algal fertiliser, and the pond water is irrigation-ready.

The final result is a system that transforms 100% of organic waste into biogas for cooking, pathogen-free algal fertiliser, and recycled pathogen-free water for irrigation of the school’s gardens. The project also provides an impressive life-science laboratory where learners daily witness and come to understand concepts like decomposition, aerobic and anaerobic biological action, and sustainability.

Changing mindsets and winning awards

“It’s nothing new for the children to talk about digesters and bacteria and the algal pond and sterilisation. Hopefully they will help advance this type of thinking in the future,” says Mark Wells of People’s Power Africa (PPA), a consortium of environmental biotechnologies companies commissioned to Rural school runs on fumes Independent Education • Winter 12 59 install, manage and monitor the system, using AGAMA Energy (Pty) Ltd’s BiogasPro technology and an advanced integrated wastewater ponding system (AIWPS) implemented by Finishes of Nature. The system was brought into the public domain by the Department of Water Affairs after 12 years of extensive testing at the Institute for Environmental Biotechnology at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. The university is also conducting the initial monitoring of the Three Crowns project, with very positive initial results.

Francois Nel, head of environmental health and community services for CHDM, observes that the Three Crowns project challenges the notion that service delivery to extreme rural areas cannot be creatively achieved. He also emphasises the project’s ability to affect the way people think. “The first goal is the education of the children and changing the mindset in terms of energy, waste and climate change. And the ownership – the children, staff and school management take ownership of the environment and the importance of protecting it. They are proud to be able to explain how methane gas is piped straight to the school kitchen to cook food.”

And it is not only they who benefit. “This project is very, very important. First I can say to my own life, because I learned a lot of things about nature,” says Funisile Zothe, the school caretaker who oversees the feeding of the bio-digester. The Three Crowns project has been a great success, with four schools requesting installation of the same system, and the nearby communities of Intsikayethu and Engcobo planning to install the systems on a much larger scale. Educators at Three Crowns have also developed lesson plans and units of work that detail construction of the models, sustainability of the energy supply, and environmental benefits for using the models.

The Lady Frere district office of the department of education has used the Sustainability Commons as a platform for all its officials and for other schools in the district to visit Three Crowns to learn about how to replicate similar projects in their own schools.

The Three Crowns project has also won numerous awards, including the 2011 Netherlands-sponsored Moolah for Amanzi award for best concept in water and sanitation projects, two Eskom eta Awards, and an Eastern Cape Flagship Projects Award.3 Several All Africa Public Sector Innovation Award (AAPSIA) accolades followed, as well as an international award for young learners bestowed by Sweden – the Special Award Volvo Adventure. More are pending.

Available materials enable further energy savings

The school-to-community empowerment project has also introduced alternative energy designs, such as a greenhouse/shade-house nursery made from recycled plastic bottles, a solar cooker, two different models of solar water heater, eco-circles, vermiculture and a zeer fridge.

Says Nel, “These designs are simple, effective and easy to replicate and built from any readily available material.” The project grew out of the following naturally occurring technologies:

  • a hot water ‘snake’ composed of an ordinary black pipe filled with water. This is then exposed to the sun, making it warm and thereby heating up the inside water
  • a greenhouse composed of used two-litre plastic bottles, creating effective insulation on both cold and hot days
  • a nursery cultivated in the greenhouse
  • eco-circle irrigation, a method that reduces the rate of evaporation of water during irrigation
  • vermiculture, a process that uses earthworms to produce a fertilising liquid, which is used in the garden
  • solar power to power a half-moon-shaped panel, which cooks by using sun rays
  • wind to generate electricity.

The Three Crowns Rural School is proof that innovative, sustainable partnerships between government, the private sector and civil society organisations do exist. But to the residents of Lady Frere, there are more important considerations at stake. Says Zothe, who personally garnered an eta energy efficiency community champion award, “We’ve learned how to use things that are connected to nature, so we don’t have to spend a lot of money, and we don’t waste.”


1. Available at: 20on%20Water_2010.PDF.

2. Available at: Report2009_ver1_web.pdf.

3. The aim of the eta Awards, hosted annually by national power provider Eskom and the Department of Energy, is to reward the proven application of sound energy-efficiency principles in the commercial, industrial, residential, agricultural and education sectors. The Flagship Projects Awards recognise worthy initiatives in a similar way.

Category: Winter 2012

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