While there are various factors that contribute to air pollution, studies have shown that industries and factories such as tanneries are often prime factors in air pollution. According to the University of Nairobi Prof Francis Mulaa, the tannery process is lengthy and very polluting to the environment because of harsh chemicals such as sulfur that are used to accelerate rotting to remove hair from the skins. “As a result, people associate tanneries with a foul smell and not the end products made from the leather,” he says.
Air pollution is the theme for 2019 World Environment Day that is celebrated annually on June 5 to encourage worldwide awareness and action to protect our environment. In this year’s celebration, governments, industry, communities, and individuals are urged to explore renewable energy and green technologies that improve air quality in cities and regions across the world.
BioInnovate Africa contributes to the protection of the environment. For this year’s World Environment Day, we share the work of our partners in Kenya and Uganda who are implementing a project on piloting use of novel enzymes from local bacterial isolates for eco-friendly processing of hides and skins. Prof Mulaa, the project leader, says that the technology uses enzymes to replace the chemical process used in tanneries. “The enzymes technology eliminates air pollution and harsh chemicals associated with tanneries, and makes it possible to produce leather at home on a much smaller scale that is still economically viable,” he says.
Prof Mulaa notes that the tannery process using synthetic chemicals takes about 60 to 72 hours to dehair the skins whereas enzymes technology reduces the same process to about four to eight hours, and there is no polluting smell associated with it. “The only smell that comes from using enzymes technology for leather processing is one that is associated with digestion which all living organisms including bacteria, produce when eating food,” he explains. “We use this smell as a sign to tell that the brew is mature and ready for harvest; the smell is not long-lasting and is one that humans can live with,” he adds.
Prof Mulaa believes that the solution to pollution associated with tanneries can be found in the harsh environment of Africa. “The enzymes used in our project were extracted from the Rift Valley soda lakes, which are known for their harsh environment that are saline in nature and contain high acidity and basic conditions that do not support normal life,” explains Prof Mulaa. Harsh environments contain many other organisms that are yet to be discovered and hence the need to protect them and invest funds and other resources to explore scientific ways on how such environment can contribute not only in supporting and protecting life forms but also clean manufacturing.
Prof Mulaa believes that their BioInnovate Africa supported enzyme project and the academic publication they made recently, is evident that Africa can equally participate in the global bio-based industry growth.
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Listen to our podcast as Prof. Mulaa talks more about the enzymes technology and how it contributes to the protection of the environment: