Hydrolution’s: tackling water pollution in Nicaragua, one bar of soap at a time
With a staunch belief in their ability to improve their community, four Nicaraguan youngsters are turning used cooking oil into soap through their social venture 'Hydrolution's'
Though Nicaragua has made progress in water supply and sanitation, poor water resource management, environmental degradation, climate change, and pollution from industrial and domestic wastewater represent a threat to the health of the country’s population.
The Coco river is no exception. Making its way from the Caribbean Sea, the river stretches out for 750 kilometers, drawing the border between Nicaragua to the South and Honduras to the North. In recent years, this huge body of water—the longest river that runs within the Central American isthmus—is increasingly being damaged by unsustainable development and polluted by harmful practices of the local population.
“While I was in my hometown Telpaneca, I would see the contamination of the Coco River due to the grey water discharged from homes into the river every day,” says 25-year-old Javier Guillen.
The main culprit, says Javier, is cast-off cooking oil, which is poured into the toilets and then dumped into the river through sewage systems.
An environmental engineer by training, Javier spent months strolling the riverbank in Telpaneca thinking about what he could do to fight the degradation of the Coco River. Then one day, he came up with an idea that had the potential to improve the lives of thousands.
“What if we could recycle and repurpose that oil before it makes its way to the river?” Javier tells us fervently. “This was the idea I had, the solution, but it was also easier said than done.”
Javier knew this wasn’t a feat to be championed alone. He teamed up with his friends Mayte Molina (24), Maria Elena Salgado (24), and Abraham Ramirez (20), who are all engineers themselves.
The months that ensued saw an arduous process of ideation, trial, error, and redrawing of plans. But what began as a simple idea, came to fruition as a ground-breaking new youth-led initiative that was set to not only preserve the environment and improve access to water and sanitation, but also tackle unemployment.
Far too often in history, the world has minimized young people’s contribution to meaningful social change. This didn’t discourage Javier, Mayte, Maria, and Abraham’ from using their fervor and creativity to protect their environment. With a staunch belief in their ability to improve their community, and a deep conviction that the change they want to see in the world starts from their immediate environment, the four youngsters created their social venture ‘Hydrolution’s’, which is now successfully tackling water pollution in Nicaragua, one bar of soap at a time!
They used their background in chemistry to replicate common soap-making recipes and adapt them to create a standardized formula to turn used cooking oil into soap.
“The basic principle of soap-making consists of fat and a basis, and we simply made use of that fact to create a standardized formula to turn used oil into soap,” says Maria Elena. “While this has been done before by other people, it has never been visualized as a business idea.”
First, the young engineers receive used cooking oil from industries and the general population through community action and social media. Then, they filter the oil, mix it with a range of other components that produce the soap, and finally store the soaps for curing and monitoring of pH values until the final product is obtained. Every gallon of cooking oil recycled translates to a cleaner environment. Every bar of soap produced translates into preserving Nicaraguan nature.
Hydrolution’s operates on a unique circular business model. Not only does the venture preserve the environment, it also tackles youth unemployment, a social challenge that has been progressively afflicting Nicaragua and countries within the Central American Dry Corridor.
“Our project has the double objective of preserving the environment and at the same time developing the skills of young people from vulnerable communities. We hold training workshops on soap making so that young people from rural communities can learn to recycle oil and make soaps,” said Mayte Molina, a member of Hydrolution’s.
This offers vulnerable rural communities—for whom agriculture is becoming increasingly hard due to climate change-induced droughts—alternatives to generating income besides agriculture.
The first-stage beneficiaries are the people of the Totumblita and Dos Quebradas communities in Ciudad Dario, Matagalpa, where youth are forced to migrate as a result of high unemployment.
So well-received was Hydrolution’s that the youngsters lacked the capacity to process the vast quantities of oil that was being donated to them from all across Nicaragua.
“Because of the many individuals and businesses offering to donate oil, we are working on renting a bigger venue that will provide us with the space and conditions to receive much larger quantities of oil and produce even more soap.”
The four young engineers are currently in the process of registering the product brand and their soaps are being reviewed by health and trade authorities. Their business plan includes a brand, marketing, and distribution strategy to make their soaps widely available.
From inception to incubation through Generation Unlimited
Today Hydrolution’s is among the eight winning teams of the global Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge. The competition acts as a catalyst for young people with brilliant ideas, but without the resources to bring them to life.
Competing against 180 other teams from 36 countries—all designing solutions to the most pressing problems in their communities—Javier and his friends were crowned one of just 8 global winning teams.
“The Generation Unlimited Bootcamp helped us determine the most promising proposals and steps to scale up those ideas,” says Mayte. “We used design thinking, problem trees, and human-centered design to create Hydrolution’s, and in the end, demonstrated that our venture is unique, feasible, replicable, and sustainable.”
“We are in an uncertain moment in time because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but our dream is to build a more optimistic future and to ensure that the generations that come after us can perpetuate our legacy and have the capacity to create solutions to that issues that will arise,” says Maria Elena.
Hydrolution’s is a prime example of how young people aren’t just passive recipients of adult influences, but crucial change agents spurring social change movements through entrepreneurship and civic participation. They prove once again that young people have what it takes to steer themselves, and us all, towards a brighter future—but we must give them the chance.
The Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge 2019/20 is co-hosted globally by four Generation Unlimited partners – UNICEF, UNDP, Plan International and the World Organization of the Scout Movement, with support from Irish Aid.