Interview with Marcel Wroblewski for SDG #10

Marcel Wroblewski

Head of Communications & NextGen

Kabena

Marcel Wroblewski

Head of Communications & NextGen

Author Biography

My year off, after graduating high school, in South Africa was a meaningful teacher to me. Working at an organic farm in a small valley surrounded by sky-rising mountains, my mind got emptied while picking fruits for hours and days; my inner child curiosity got enhanced while discovering nature’s beauty; my instincts sharpened while climbing mountains; and I finally grasped what it means to create something purposeful as I built my first house together with the team. As romantic as it sounds, this adventure was a truly mind shifting endeavor of my own. I came back to my hometown of Hamburg, Germany, and studied Design of Communications, hoping this could melt my artistic side together with my passion for science. Thus design thinking and interaction design turned out to be my destiny there, and my study partner and I created plenty of sophisticated experiences as well as award-winning projects in devoted teamwork. One of these prototypes, an augmented reality terminal, ultimately made it into a real world product during a cooperation with the CityScienceLab of the HafenCity University (Hamburg) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the same time I urged stepping out into the real industry of design and marketing early. But I got disillusioned quickly as I realized that here I will not be able to create the kind of impactful endeavor I wish for the world. I swerved into making my living with art, where I met the exotic place of Kabena. Today, I’m blessed for being able to call it home. As Head of Communications at Kabena, I occasionally come as an ambassador for multiple endeavors of ours ranging from Sustainable Infrastructures, Energy Transition and Decarbonization over to CleanTech and Life Spaces. PlantBlue is one of them and a dream come true. It’s master model is at Lake Victoria, but the dream is meant to continue far beyond Kenya and Africa to bring resonance to nature and humans all across the globe — a mission for which I’m humbled by being Kabena’s lead of NextGen. So my story loops in Africa where one chapter’s end is the beginning of another one, and the only questions I have left are: How many PlantBlue plants does it take to make the world impactful? And who will be company on this endeavor?

Q1. What was your company’s unique approach in integrating technology to achieve UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)?

We prioritize using our limited and most valuable resources: time and capital to increase life quality of people by decreasing poverty and preserving the beauty of nature, by implementing sustainable tech on large scale, ultimately shaping a world of resonance.

Doing so, we believe that working problem-oriented is critical in order to subsequently bring the most effective solution, thus impact for the trade of our resources. Empirical insights as well as rational reasoning are key instruments to identify such core problems that are consistently linked to our basic needs like energy, food and space. Further we take size, solvability and the degree of how excessive a problem is being neglected into account to evaluate whether we are able to expend our time and capital most effectively.

Because world’s biggest problems constantly turn out to be our biggest opportunities to bring impactful change, we always focus to look closer on given problems, think deeper about most suitable solutions and finally shift perspective to convert a miserable situation into something valuable. Our approach is to think global and act local, focusing on individual needs hence foster a diverse world that resonates well.

Q2. What are some examples of SDG-focused projects that your company is currently working on?

Our way of implementing the Global Goals within an economic viable business is well illustrated by our endeavour at Lake Victoria, the biggest fresh water lake in Africa. The lake is badly infested by a highly destructive weed — water hyacinth — which basically depletes dissolved oxygen from the water body causing a cascade of life-threatening effects. One of them is the vast loss of biodiversity. Lake Victoria is a defining element for the climate of West Africa. Thus it shapes the environment for biodiversity as well as the livelihood of people and communities in it’s vicinity. To cut a long story short: the lake is dying and everything depending on it as well.

Approaching this problematic scenario by deeply understanding it’s origin first gave us the clear vision and high certainty to convert this problem into a major opportunity. Eventually to achieve the goals we desire the most today, like sustainability, circular economy, you name it. We rescue Lake Victoria from its infestation, and take advantage of water hyacinth at the same time to develop these riparian communities in a green manner. By harvesting the weed and harnessing its energy-producing potential we’re able to convert it into a source of endless clean energy available 24/7, as well as organic fertiliser to bring back fertility to the eroded farmland. Our approach is to bring true impact to this region. This includes the contribution to each of all 17 SDGs.

Q3. What are the most difficult challenges your company and other companies face generally in the implementation/adoption of new sustainable technology?

There are many challenges when it comes to true implementation of the Global Goals. Endeavours are extremely diverse ranging from poverty reduction, over recovering biodiversity, to quality education as well as clean infrastructures. Therefore challenges are highly individual. Still, increasingly great progress has been made so far over the past few years and we much more to come.

One particular challenge that we learned from regarding our water hyacinth endeavour is linked to financing — the life core of every endeavour. Our plant is a multi-purpose biogas power plant, meaning it generates an output that is much more diverse than the sum of input material. By feeding biomass — specifically biological waste — into the plant, we’re able to generate clean, base-load energy and organic fertilisers made from the plant’s residue through biogas technology. Apart from that, we produce additional liquid, organic fertilisers, as well as liquid CO2 for the food and beverage industry, access amount of biogas for cooking, hundreds of jobs and a remarkable amount of carbon credits that is equivalent to planting 72 million trees per annum.

However, most financiers haven’t been comfortable with our approach of serving this multi-purpose, since their financing buckets were structured in a narrow manner hence restricted to either RE, agriculture, or another niche. Especially this part of the value chain needs to adapt to the novel dynamics of an more interconnected, multi-purpose world to really accelerate new, clean technologies in a much faster pace.

Q4. Tell me about a time your sustainable tech helped another company realize their SDG goals.

We’re not aware of any exact company that profits from our sustainable tech, but the infrastructure we built is a critical enabler for settling companies, hence a growing economy. This is simply because we provide sustainable but more importantly constant amount of base-load energy to further stabilize the national power grid. The quality of the power grid plays the main role, whether in the development in general, or economically.

The biggest hurdle faced by so many companies in Africa is an unreliable power source, if there is any available at all. This means a significant increase in costs of running a business, because electricity is like blood in the life of an economy. It’s a key factor in making a business work, whether it is the banking sector, agriculture, mining, or big or small companies, everyone is affected. Many of these concerned companies therefore maintain their own fossil- fuelled power generators as backup and have to bear the associated costs. Such generated power can be 3-6 times more expensive, than that from the national power grid.

Companies and other institutions like hospitals that highly depend on a durable power grid and are now more certain to settle, because of the much more affordable access to electricity, and therefore they can guarantee continuous operations with greater confidence.

Q5. What is the biggest challenge your company has handled while enabling your sustainable tech accessible to different communities?

The biggest challenge related to local communities in Lake Victoria’s vicinity was to be compliant to all 17 SDGs with PlantBlue — that is named Homa Bay Biogas for our first and foremost masterpiece. After we made the project economically viable, we thought about the real things in life which matter most and therefore took the most suitable measurement for such a diverse topic, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Among many others, features like water treatment facilities for fresh drinking water free of charge as well as social and medical services are financed by the plant’s revenue. This means lower revenue for our stakeholders.

But at the same time we add a great amount of value to the ecological and social part of local life, and it creates such a great impact that it justifies that shift from financial to socio-ecological capital. Simply, the amount of capital that we shifted to the socio-ecological side would have a significantly minor impact when left on the financial side.

Q6. Cost-effective sustainable tech can be lifesaving and planet-saving approach. What actions your company takes to make your sustainable tech economical and a fit for the large-scale adoption?

Production of clean, base-load energy and organic fertilisers through biogas technology contributes to PlantBlue’s economic viability. What differentiates PlantBlue to other biogas power plants is the feedstock that is solely made of widely available, biological waste. Therefore, it doesn’t have to deal with the ethical dilemma of utilising food for fuel production which is often the case in the field of biofuels — indeed biogas technology has supreme potential over their RE peers in specific regions.

Although, water hyacinth infestation is well illustrated at Lake Victoria, it’s a global issue of water bodies in tropical and subtropical climate zones. The project is the first of its kind in combining modern and tested technology at highest standard and quality within application in the biogas sector. Core task is the transfer of tested technology from Germany to other countries and managing complex biological processes under different climatic requirements. In addition to this technological know-how, PlantBlue is due to it’s modular nature deployable in every location that chokes from water hyacinth infestation.

Q7. What do you believe will be a global, long-term, impact of your sustainable tech integration?

While primarily focusing on recovering biodiversity and providing a sustainable infrastructure that communities can depend on, long-term impacts are plenty when it comes to individual needs of a specific region. To speak about our two prime products energy and fertilisers, a reliable source of clean, base-load energy enables contemporary development of such regions, and organic fertiliser is critical to bring back fertility to soil of overused cropland, which is specially important to Africa since large parts of the continent’s soil is not able to produce hummus by its own. Altogether this builds local capacity, hence strength for independent growth and competitiveness of communities, regions and countries for decades to come.

Q8. What’s your vision for the sustainable tech industry and your company’s role in it?

Each region that thinks and acts inline with the manner of PlantBlue can become a global leader for modern and sustainable infrastructure to achieve the Global Goals including net-zero in a much faster pace. The implementation of such a system enables strong partnerships to neighbouring countries and increased competitiveness in global export markets. Further, global suppliers are enabled to enter market in developing and emerging countries to establish further application of state-of-the-art technology bringing further development and modernization potential.

Plenty answers for the questions our modern world gives us to solve are already present in nature. We just need to listen carefully, watch closely and learn from nature to eventually obtain multiple benefits for solutions of modern world problems — thus create a world that resonates well.