Using Bacteria and Blockchain to Clean Up Oil Spills in Nigeria

Since the dawn of Nigeria's oil boom era in the 1970s, the people of the Niger Delta region have had to face its devastating consequences

Muneer Yaqub, The Nation (Nigeria)
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Woman lays clothes out to dry on an oil pipeline running through the Okrika neighborhood of Port Harcourt in Nigeria's oil-rich delta region, Saturday, Oct. 7 2006.
Drying the laundry on oil pipelines in NigeriaCredit: AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
Muneer Yaqub, The Nation (Nigeria)

Since the dawn of Nigeria's oil boom era in the 1970s, the people of the Niger Delta region have had to face its devastating consequences. With more than 12,000 oil spills in the last 50 years, the region’s formerly pristine environment has turned into the oil pollution capital of the world.

In Niger Delta, the drinking water supply is contaminated with benzene at levels up to 900 times the World Health Organization's recommendation, the WHO itself says. This impacts malnutrition and infant mortality.

A study conducted by Dr. Best Ordinioha of the University of Port Harcourt claims that the oil spills “lead to a 60 percent reduction in household food security” in the region. The problem is magnified by an increased rate of unemployment due to the emergence of Niger Delta militants who vandalize pipelines and kidnap oil workers for ransom.

However, the national government has done little to address the oil spills in Niger Delta, despite a UN 2011 report saying it would take up to 30 years to clean up the pollution and calling for an investment of USD 1 billion to pay for it. The Nigerian government finally pledged to allocate this amount to a cleaning and regeneration program in 2016, but so far little has changed.

Believing that 30 years is not soon enough to save the people of the region from the devastating effects of oil pollution, Chinyere Nnadi, a Nigerian entrepreneur based in the United States, founded the nonprofit Sustainability International in 2007 to revitalize the Niger Delta.

His main goal was to clean oil spills one village at a time, and to enable young women and ex-militants to secure employment by fighting corruption. “The root of the problem is systemic corruption and the lack of transparency within society,” Nnadi said. “What we’re looking to do is to activate the locals, and arm them with new skills and tools to support their community.”

Killing the oil

A UCLA theater and film graduate and former MTV VJ, Nnadi is using a newly approved technology called Bioclean to conduct the cleanups. Developed by a research team led by Nnadi’s mother, Dr. Fidelia Nnadi, at the University of Central Florida School of Engineering, Bioclean is an organic, non-toxic, bacteria-based technology that degrades and restores contaminated sites in less than 30 days. It destroys the availability of hydrocarbons at a molecular level, basically killing the oil, and leaves behind nutrients that catalyze the ecosystem’s restoration.

In 2012, the biotechnology was successfully used in the Colombian town of Chinácota to decontaminate its soil, water and vegetation in four weeks after an oil duct fracture.

Convinced that Nigeria’s cleanup scheme was failing due to mistrust and lack of transparency and accountability, Chinyere Nnadi brought blockchain technology to the table, too. In mid-2017, Sustainability International started receiving the support of the Brooklyn-based blockchain venture studio ConsenSys and its Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition. Together they created a platform, Sela Labs, which uses cryptocurrencies to ensure that the cleanup process remains corruption-free.

Participating mediaCredit: SparkNews

“I brought blockchain to Niger Delta because the centralized institutional nodes of accountability have been compromised,” said Nnadi. “When a system is sick, and the actors don’t trust each other, no work can be done.”

Blockchain —a digital, decentralized, virtual ledger— provides a transparent, instantaneous and indisputable record of transactions, which is publicly accessible and verifiable. Using this technology, Sela acts as a secure payment platform, fostering trust among stakeholders and ensuring that local workers get a fair salary for their work.

“Distributed accountability could be the way to serve the interests of all of the community stakeholders, including citizens, government and businesses,” Nnadi said.

The nonprofit started conducting the first cleanup pilots using cryptocoins one year ago in K-Dere, a village in southern Nigeria. They expect to deploy full-scale cleanups of the Niger Delta in May.

This article is being published as part of Earth Beats, an international and collaborative initiative gathering 18 news media outlets from around the world to focus on solutions to waste and pollution.