Palestinian entrepreneurs find way to turn olive waste into clean energy

A trio of graduates in Gaza are marketing an innovative energy product, bringing sustainable, affordable energy to the region.

A Palestinian man closes a bag containing freshly picked olives, as a boy looks on, during harvest at a farm in Tubas, West Bank; October 19, 2018. (photo credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS)
A Palestinian man closes a bag containing freshly picked olives, as a boy looks on, during harvest at a farm in Tubas, West Bank; October 19, 2018.
A trio of civil engineering graduates in Gaza have found a way to turn olive oil waste into fuel pellets, creating an economically viable alternative energy source.
Job opportunities are scarce in the Gaza strip, with the unemployment rate among graduates aged 19-29 running at just under 80%, but Tamer Abo Motlaq, 26, Usama Qudaih, 24, and Khaled Abo Motlaq, 24 have taken matters into their own hands with their innovative technology, Al Jazeera has reported.
Together, the graduates have founded the Olive Jift Project, a start-up that transforms "jift" – a byproduct of olive oil pressing – into fuel pellets for domestic and industrial use.
"The jift production begins with grinding fresh olive mill pomace left on the site of the olive press, then we apply chemical treatment to remove the bad smell from jift burning and reduce its emissions and smoke," Tamer explained to Al Jazeera.
"The final stage is to compress treated olive pomace through a machine specifically designed to make Cylindrical-shaped jift with a certain amount of air gaps in it. Then, we let it dry in the sun before it's ready to use."
Olive oil extraction typically leaves around 40% of the olive harvest behind as waste, creating some 80,000 tonnes of olive pomace in the West Bank and Gaza each year.
Hassan Tammous, an associate professor of biochemistry at Egypt's Al-Azhar University, told Al Jazeera that this waste contains "polyphenols and other chemicals, which are toxic to microorganisms, harmful to agricultural production and contaminating to aquifers," a problem that is especially acute in Gaza due to its high density population.
Not only do the jift pellets help to disperse this waste, they also prevent over-logging of citrus trees for firewood.
"Logging is unsustainable in Gaza, because we don't have much green environment in such urban and densely populated area," Tamer said. And the pellets are more efficient too. "Regular firewood burns for four to five hours while a jift block burns for seven to 10 hours in average," he said. "When used for heating and cooking, a few cents-worth of jift blocks substitute for a NIS 64 ($18.47) gas cylinder."
The pellets are cheap too, costing about $150 a tonne for the company to make, which translates to about half the local price of a kilogram of firewood.
The pellets are already finding success. To secure seed funding and mentorship, the trio entered a contest run by Danish Church Aid, which saw them secure micro-funding of $5,000 plus coaching from the Ma'an Development Center, a local NGO.
They have also shown adaptability, building a machine required in the final stages of pellet production from scratch at a cost of $3,000, including failed attempts, after models on the market turned out to cost more than twice their total budget. 
The hard work has paid off: having marketed the pellets to local outlets and on social media, demand for the olive jift pellets has already exceeded supply.
"We were surprised that despite our production rate of 1,000 kg per hour (2,204.6 pounds), we often run out of jift," Tamer told Al Jazeera.
"Some local factories want us to supply jift in large quantities all year round for alternative energy, while many farmers in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza use it in wintertime to heat greenhouses and chicken farms, because it can give them up to 12 hours of heating."
The company hopes to double their production capacity, workforce and engineering staff next year. They are also developing more products, such as a portable heater which can charge a mobile phone from burning olive jift.
Tamer told Al Jazeera he hoped the company would be a good showcase for the entrepreneurial spirit in Gaza.
"Entrepreneurship is the path to challenge the dire status quo and develop local solutions to Gaza's crises," he said.
"We are some of the most highly educated populations in the world. What we lack is a serious opportunity to demonstrate our resourcefulness and potentials to create a better reality ourselves."