22 Nov 2017
Marrakesh, Morocco
Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Waste Management

You could be forgiven for never having heard of a solar microwave oven (SMO) — the technology is only a few years old, an innovation slowly being developed and perfected in an industrial zone at the edge of Marrakesh. Despite its low levels of media exposure internationally, SMO technology is already promising to revolutionize the way Morocco and the rest of Africa deal with their waste.

The innovation belongs to Pour Et Par le Soleil (PEPS), a Moroccan-French company founded in February 2012 through an unlikely series of events and collaborators. Hamza El Baroudi, today the CEO of PEPS, was the group manager for Imperium Holding, a Moroccan tea manufacturer. As part of their work with multinationals, the company was required to report on its waste management measures. “It was a response to an issue of waste treatment, but also looking at how we could do this treatment using a green process,” El Baroudi says of the reason why Imperium Holding originally decided to invest in the technology.

The SMO was developed by Nicolas Ugolin, a French engineer who was looking for partners to build his first prototype. El Baroudi and Imperium Holdings went in with the idea to invest, and soon became entangled in the potential of the technology. Throw in Ugolin’s Guadeloupe-based cleantech company, NST, and together, the partners decided to proceed with creating the prototype in Marrakesh.

How SMO works:

The premise of a solar microwave oven is simple: harness the power of the sun’s rays to process waste into various value-added products. PEPS’ solar microwave takes advantage of an existing innovation: pyrolysis, the thermochemical reaction that decomposes organic and other waste in a zero-oxygen chamber using high, consistent temperatures. The product that remains is smoked, not burnt, and one that maintains a high energy content thanks to carbon and other materials.

El Baroudi is quick to point out that pyrolysis is nothing new — PEPS’ innovation is that the pyrolysis within their reactor requires no additional energy, making it a 100% green technique. Typically, additional electricity or wood burning is required to stoke the reactor temperature to the required 600+ degrees. “We use mirrors to concentrate the energy of the sun and get the reactor to the required temperatures,” El Baroudi explains of their innovation. “With our technology, we are able to transform big quantities of waste using mainly solar energy. We have the first machine worldwide able to do this.”

For now, the waste is primarily organic, and PEPS has an early-stage partnership with BioChar Maroc, a company with expertise in collecting organic waste from farmers in Agadir, an agriculturally-rich part of Morocco. Beyond high-in-carbon agricultural waste, PEPS has also been processing domestic waste from around Marrakesh, lessening the load on the city’s landfills.

PEPS’ SMO process has three main outputs: biochar, powdered charcoal which is a valuable fertilizer; activated carbon, a highly-coveted ingredient found in water treatment filters and some medications; and syngas, which can be converted into electricity and used to power the places where the waste originated. A truly circular economy.  

With their current working prototype, PEPS can transform 27 tons of waste into 18 tons of charcoal each day. The company is currently developing its system for upgrading that product into activated carbon and syngas.

Expansion across Africa:

One of the most promising features of PEPS’ SMO is its mobility.

The machine fits inside a 45-foot shipping container and was designed specifically for volatile weather environments. “From the very beginning we asked our engineers to work on a solution that could be easily transported and installed,” says El Baroudi. “With our design, the mirrors can be protected within the container and easily set up again for production. We don’t need this in Morocco, but it was important for us to build technology that could be easily implemented in other regions without problems.”

Sustainable waste management, particularly the issue of organic waste disposal, is a challenge across the African continent. Within that, PEPS sees cities ripe with opportunity — about two-thirds of waste produced in major African cities is organic, not ideal for recycling or compost, but perfectly primed to be transformed into biochar, activated carbon, or energy. “Our technology has high impact in Morocco but also on the whole continent. We just need the right partners to go with us on this adventure,” El Baroudi says.

As a Moroccan business owner, El Baroudi is a firm believer that Morocco is the ideal place to develop this continent-wide solution: “We built this entire project with €2 million, and all the qualified engineers we needed were in the Marrakesh area. You need a minimum of €20 to €25 million to do this in Europe or the U.S. We developed the same technology for 10 times cheaper.”

The UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) is just one of groups that sees the potential in PEPS’ innovation. The company won first prize in the Global Cleantech Innovation Programme’s (GCIP) waste beneficiation and valuation category at COP22. “There are tremendous market opportunities in Africa and Morocco to address this big waste problem,” says Omar Agodim, GCIP Morocco project coordinator. “Take our country, where our landfills are completely full, and we have no solution except digging bigger holes. PEPS is a different direction to this problem. We don’t see innovations like this every year in Morocco.”

Agodim says another of the company’s attractions is that it is backed by a strong team: “In Morocco, we sometimes have startups with good ideas, but a lot of them don’t have a team. For the case of PEPS, we have a great team, and strong partnerships. They have all the points to succeed.”

Constructing the world’s first solar microwave site:

Partner-wise, PEPS is currently seeking investment around the tune of €20 million. Debuting the technology at 2016’s COP22 conference, PEPS received financial support from the Marrakesh region to create a series of experimental waste treatment sites in the city. El Baroudi says once the technology is certified, a process they are undergoing now, the city’s regional government has agreed to partner with them to construct the first industrial site, with a processing capacity of 54 tons of waste a day. With three SMO machines, El Baroudi adds that site alone could produce the power capacity to light half of Marrakesh.

Next up, PEPS is interested in creating an industrial site wherever it finds its next investment partner, be it in Guadeloupe, or beyond.




Website: www.peps.ma

Facebook: www.facebook.com/pepsmaroc

Photos: Courtesy of PEPS Morocco

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
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PEPS Resource Efficiency & Sustainable Waste Management