In June 2017, Yolandi Schoeman – a final-year MPhil student in Integrated Water Management studies – joined the steadily growing list of internationally-acclaimed South African science and technology innovators.

Earlier, Yolandi – also the CEO of ecological engineering firm Baoberry – swept the floor with rivals at the 2016 South African Global Cleantech Innovation Programme. And in March 2017, she was named joint runner-up at Cleantech Week 2017* in San Francisco.

Her out-of-the-box entry, a nature-based water purification system called ‘A Wetland in a Box’ (aWetbox), has since attracted significant international investor and industry interest.

Out-of-the-box

aWetbox is a grey water treatment system that “eliminates 99% of disease-causing micro-organisms and improves water quality for household use by up to 80%”. The idea emanates from Yolandi’s Masters work, which examines floating wetlands as an ecological technology to enhance water quality.

“When we began work on aWetbox, we discovered there isn’t much technology available for households in the way of natural filters for water purification,” says Yolandi. “Ours would be the first of its kind to be made available in the US on a commercial scale.”

Life-changing

Winning the award and being invited to present on the industry circuit has been life-changing, Yolandi says: “It confirmed that the world is ready for nature-based ecologically-engineered solutions that tackle real sustainability challenges. It has also reignited in me the need for water security innovation, making me realise that there is still much to do in water security.”

As with all potentially life-changing (even world-changing) innovations, her system has already been subjected to rigorous investor scrutiny – and will no doubt face sterner tests in time to come.

“For the finals of the Global Cleantech Innovation Competition, we had to present our business case to a panel of international judges,” Yolandi explains.

“We also took part in the global expo, where everyone presented their innovations to investors from Silicon Valley and abroad. We only had five minutes per investor, so it was crucial to ensure they understood the product within the first few minutes. The conversation then turned to markets, beachhead segments, economic potential and market strategy – and, of course, the amount and type of investment required. It was an intense couple of hours.”

Don’t give up

Above all, Yolandi encourages green entrepreneurs to persevere.

“Do not give up on any of your ideas and innovations just because you don’t have any funding for getting it market-ready or to start with manufacturing your first units. Try to access local funding opportunities. No idea is too small to make a big difference!”

Cleantech Week combines cleantech and climate movement inputs to create new business opportunities through innovation”. The Global Cleantech Innovation Programme (GCIP), a joint initiative of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), selects the best cleantech entrepreneurs across seven countries and supports them in developing their technologies into full-fledged market-ready products.