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Nigerian’s Assault on Sawdust Makes Lives Healthier

by: Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sawdust is a menace in Nigeria. People burn it for lack of a better use, and it clogs waterways. The situation troubles Rufus Idris because people in his country suffer the health effects of smoke, particles and toxic gases.

He made a pitch in a competition to World Bank three years ago to get funding to turn wood waste into products. Though he didn't win, the idea made it to the finals and gained support, he said. As a result, a small business that makes sawdust briquets is under way in Nigeria, he said.

Mr. Idris, co-founder of the Union Of African Communities in Pittsburgh, is in Washington, D.C., today as a finalist in the African Diaspora Marketplace competition. He wants to help Nigerians — and ultimately people throughout Africa — start businesses making water filter vessels modeled on the ones made in the basement of Braddock's Carnegie Library.

The Braddock Pot Shop is home to the first water-vessel factory in North America. There, Jeffrey Schwarz makes ceramic cones from clay, sawdust and colloidal silver. When the cones are fired at 1,700 degrees, the sawdust burns off and the vessel becomes something like a colander through which the water filters. A coating of colloidal silver kills E. coli and other bacteria when water is poured through it.

Mr. Idris learned about the factory from a professor at La Roche College.

"He showed up last summer and said 'I have a problem with sawdust,' " said Mr. Schwarz.

The factory was set up in the fall of 2008. At the urging of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, AmeriCorps established Mr. Schwarz as a paid staffer to run it. The factory was the brainchild of Slippery Rock University ceramics instructor Richard Wukich, Mr. Schwarz's former teacher.

Since word has spread about the factory, it has become a resource and training center for people who want to take the expertise to their homelands. It doesn't make sense to pay to ship vessels when people can make them where they're needed, said Mr. Schwarz.

The cones last about two years, and the materials for one cost about 75 cents; total production of one cone costs about $2.50, he said.

Mr. Idris gets money from the Heinz Endowments to develop economic improvement programs for African immigrants under a nonprofit he runs, Christian Evangelistic Economic Development.

"I was trying to make a connection between immigrants in business here and people in Africa and to apply a technique used here to save lives there," he said.

Mr. Idris has a bachelor's degree in aquatic sciences and a master's in environmental management and toxicology from Nigerian universities. He is working toward a physical therapy degree in a joint program of Duquesne University and La Roche College.

He was among 733 applicants for USAID/Western Union funding. If his project is selected, it could receive $50,000 to $100,000. He is also working on a collaboration that includes the University of Pittsburgh, Slippery Rock University, Rotary International and other nonprofits.

He said the vessels in Nigerian households can have a ripple effect on the quality of peoples' lives.

Safe water will make people healthier, and income from the factories will afford them better food.

He estimates that in the first year of funding, 35 people could be put to work and that, over three years, 39,000 filters could be in use in Nigerian households.

"The major materials are in abundance and the machinery needed is simple," he said. "It is such a simple way to solve so many problems."

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