One of the Laureates of the 2008 Rolex Awards, which rewards pioneering and enterprising individuals, is Elsa Zaldivar from Paraguay, a poor, landlocked country in the heart of South America, who has found a new use for an old vegetable.

Elsa has been a long-time advocate and helper to the poor whilst being environmentally conscious. She has uncovered a method to mix loofah – a cucumber-like vegetable that is dried to yield a scratchy sponge frequently used as an abrasive skin scrubber – with other vegetable matter such as husks from corn and Caranday palm trees. Mixing them with recycled plastic, strong, lightweight panels can be created. These panels can then be used to create furniture and construct houses, insulating them from temperature and noise.

As the design of the panels has been refined, improvements have meant lowering costs. The panels initially cost about US$6 per square metre to produce, however, the cost has already dropped to less than half that figure, making it competitive with existing construction materials, such as wood.

About 300,000 Paraguayan families do not have adequate housing.

Simon Turner

FYI: Read more articles on the Environment; or Awards; or Kiva (loans that change lives)

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