Hyacinth power

 By Criselda Diala-McBride

Water hyacinth’s invasive nature has been a major headache for countries across Asia – from causing floods to increasing the breeding grounds of disease-transmitting mosquitoes. But a group of young Southeast Asian entrepreneurs are taking on the challenge of converting this floating perennial plant from a nuisance into a reliable source of cooking fuel…

(Cover photo by

It is the schoolyard bully of the horticultural world, a bane to wildlife and city planners alike. Water hyacinth has been known to negatively impact flora and fauna ecosystems, as well as clog up sewage systems and waterways. Its growth rate can be explosive and the cost of controlling its outbreak can be financially debilitating to governments and the private sector.

However, in the Philippines, this noxious plant is becoming a viable clean cooking solution for rural communities. HiGi Energy, a Kuala Lumpur-based social business, is the startup behind the hyacinth briquettes – aptly branded “Uling Lily” (uling is the Tagalog word for charcoal) – which are currently produced and sold in the province of Tarlac, in the Philippines’ northern region.

At PHP8 ($0.17) per pack, the smoke-free Uling Lily hyacinth briquettes have provided marginalized consumers a healthier alternative to firewood and charcoal, which according to the World Bank, are the major sources of indoor air pollution in emerging economies. TheWorld Health Organization has also attributed the premature death of 4.3 million people annually to exposure to household air pollution caused by burning biomass and coal.

“More than 50 million people in the Philippines are still cutting down trees [to use] as cooking fuel. Around the world, 2.6 billion people rely on firewood and charcoal for cooking,” said Jackie Yap, an engineer and the founding CEO of HiGi Energy. “Imagine if these trees [are saved,] we can then dampen the effects of climate change.”

Bangladeshi boatmen navigate through dense water hyacinths over the Buriganga river in Dhaka

But the Uling Lily initiative does not only turn invasive plants into sustainable and affordable cooking fuel. It also promotes public awareness about the benefits of clean energy, while providing employment to members of the local community. “We uphold the principle of utilizing local resources to create a sustainable business, which eventually leads to an ownership economy for the local communities,” said Yap.

To make the hyacinth briquettes, water hyacinths are harvested, chopped, ground, pressed and dried. It takes around two to three days to produce a batch of briquettes to meet the needs of consumers in Victoria, Tarlac.

HiGi Energy has received funding from various organizations in the Philippines, Malaysia and the United States. In the future, Yap said they are hoping to secure an angel investment to fund its plan to manufacture other renewable-energy-inspired products such as power-efficient cooking stoves and solar panels. The company has plans to bring its Uling Lily product to Kidapawan province, in southern Philippines, and eventually expand into the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and Hawaii in the USA.

Yap believes the hyacinth briquettes have the potential to become a mainstream source of cooking fuel for poor communities in Southeast Asia. But eco-friendly legislation will be necessary if such markets are to be conducive to the creation of such clean energy products.




about the author
Criselda Diala-McBride
Dubai-based journalist with 20 years of experience writing and editing finance, aviation, tourism, retail, technology, property and oil and gas articles for a range of print and online publications.