As a Kenyan and a Ghanaian, meeting in South Africa for a project that will benefit neither of our countries but other Africans exemplifies the true spirit of Pan-Africanism. We have a target of positively impacting 5,000 people over the next ten years through The Living Machine. We want to see many people grow and have access to quality food and a better lifestyle. The Living Machine is bigger than just the two of us, or even ALA”.
Jesse Forrester ’17 from Kenya and Wuntia Gomda ’17 from Ghana designed The Living Machine, a wastewater treatment system which has the capacity to clean 300,000 litres of water annually. This design won the first prize in the Global High Schools Category (Sub-Saharan Africa) at the 2019 Zayed Sustainability Prize. The Living Machine was constructed at African Leadership Academy and commissioned in December 2019.
Wuntia and Jesse grew up several thousand miles apart in Ghana and Kenya respectively, but struck up a friendship before they would ever meet for the first time at African Leadership Academy. Having connected over Whatsapp as incoming members of the ALA Class of 2017, they recognized in each other a mutual passion for scientific exploration and pushing boundaries. When they heard about the Zayed Sustainability Prize and its call for applications for projects designed to create sustainable cities, their idea for a wastewater treatment system to generate clean water came to life. Today, The Living Machine exists as an integral part of ALA’s campus infrastructure and a monument to doing hard things.
Inspiration for The Living Machine
When Jesse and Wuntia learned about the water crisis that gripped Cape Town in 2017, they were shocked to hear that a major, coastal city could reach a point of running out of usable water. “What hope do other cities have, then?” asked Wuntia. Determined to contribute to a solution, the young leaders began conversations with ALA’s Head of Science & Technology, Mr Hans Sowder, and Associate Dean for Learning & Innovation, Mr Matthew Young. They set out to create a project that would make water usage at the ALA campus more environmentally sustainable, as a test case for what could be implemented in cities across the continent.
After several months of work and with extensive support from their faculty advisors, Wuntia and Jesse submitted their application to the Zayed Sustainability Prize in Abu Dhabi. From of a pool of 3,000 competitive applicants, Wuntia and Jesse were selected along with two other finalists from sub-Saharan Africa to attend the award ceremony and conference where they presented their design of a wastewater management system. Since it was established in 2008, the Zayed Sustainability Prize has sought to encourage global action on the development of renewable energy solutions. On January 14, 2019, Wuntia and Jesse were named the winners of the $100,000 Zayed Sustainability Prize for Global High Schools, presented by Sheikh Zayed of the United Arab Emirates.
Constructing The Living Machine
Upon return from Abu Dhabi, Wuntia and Jesse put their project management skills to the test, working with a team of scientists and a construction company to implement their design. When they broke ground on the project in June 2018, they assumed that the project would be finalized in time for their graduation only two weeks from the day. They soon realized that their estimated timeline was far from realistic. Both students returned to Ghana and Kenya respectively upon graduation but continued to work with the project team remotely for six months until the project was completed. In the presence of students, faculty, staff and media, The Living Machine was commissioned in December 2019 with a symposium and ribbon-cutting ceremony.
On the ALA campus today, The Living Machine not only exemplifies leadership learning through authentic projects, it demonstrates the value of entrepreneurial thinking and practice, and a commitment to investing in sustainability. The Living Machine is a fully functional sustainable wastewater treatment system that will make ALA campus more environmentally friendly by recycling approximately 300,000 liters of grey water annually that will be re-used in an aquaponic system growing fish, providing water for crops for various agricultural student enterprises on campus, and supplying the sprinkler system around the campus.
According to Mr. Hans Sowder, The Living Machine truly exemplifies leadership in learning. As both young leaders learned through practice, it is one thing to dream and write up a proposal but being able to execute and implement the project itself is an entirely different challenge. Students learning Biology at ALA these days can be routinely found beside the machine, experiencing concepts that would otherwise have been explained only through a textbook. For Wuntia and Jesse, the goal is to impact more than 5,000 people in 10 years through their next projects; enabling people to grow crops and gain improved access to quality food. One thing is for sure, this is not the last that any of us will hear about both young entrepreneurs and The Living Machine.