Abundant in the lakes, rivers and streams surrounding Phnom Penh, water hyacinths are easily collected, and often used for compost or even to weave into hammocks.

A group of three third-year architecture students from Paragon University have discovered a modern, sustainable construction material that can replace floor or ceiling tiles or imported plaster decorative panels, and they all stem from the humble water hyacinth.

“They can also be decorated with various colour patterns,” explained Chhay Kimsenh, who along with two fellow students, formed AquaBuild, a startup company that was formed to enter Impact Hub Phnom Penh’s Build4People Sustainable Building Incubator competition.

“We selected water hyacinths because they are widely available. Although they are used for hammocks and baskets, we don’t believe their full potential has been explored yet,” Kimsenh explained.

AquaBuild has targeted the production of sustainable and environmentally friendly construction materials that can be sourced directly from the Tonle Sap Lake.

While carrying out their research, they also discovered that water hyacinths can have detrimental effects on the aquatic environment. An invasive species, they cause water flow congestion, reduce biodiversity, and prevent sunlight and oxygen from reaching other aquatic plants.

“This means that the environmental benefits of our product start as soon as we begin harvesting our raw materials. Its a win win,” added Kimsenh.

Kao Satya, another member of the AquaBuild team, explained that after selecting water hyacinths as their primary component, they were unsure how to proceed, as the concept is relatively new.

“We spent several months researching and experimenting. We collect the plant material from the water and then dry them in the sun. After they are dry enough, we chop them finely and then grind them into a powder, which we mix with cement. Finally, the material is pressed into moulds and panels are created,” he said.

Although the raw materials are inexpensive, AquaBuild acknowledges that industrial production will require specialised equipment which they, being students, cannot afford. As a result, they have to wait a long time for the sun to dry their plant material, and then use kitchen blenders to grind it into powder.

The final product is a panel, akin to plywood or flooring tiles, which can be affixed as flooring, ceilings or to decorate a wall. It is lighter than plaster and does not conduct heat.

“After four and a half months of hard work, we earned first place in Impact Hub Phnom Penh’s Build4People Sustainable Building Incubator. We were awarded a trophy, a certificate, and a $2,000 cash prize,” said Kimsenh.

“Participating in the challenge also gave us invaluable business knowledge,” he added.

Over the course of the contest, competitors underwent comprehensive training on various aspects of running a business, from logo creation to ideation for product development, marketing strategies, client approach techniques and conducting interviews.

They also gained practical knowledge in business operations, thanks to the opportunity to engage with numerous industry experts.

“This enabled us to understand and apply real-world principles instead of only theoretical learning,” said Kimsenh.

“Based on our observations of similar projects from other countries, we are hopeful that ours will be successful. While we dare not claim that our products are superior in quality to others, they are certainly comparable in terms of price and usage, and can be used to replace traditional building materials such as plaster or plywood at a lower cost. The judges even described our proposal as ‘scalable’,” he added.

Se Chanchorornay, the third member of the group, said they believe they have discovered a genuine business opportunity, but that their initial focus would be on refining the product so they could guarantee its quality.

“We really want it to happen, but not until after we graduate. We cannot take time off to refine the product full-time, but will continue our experiments. If the testing goes well, we will consider pursuing it as a business venture,” she added.

Kimsenh explained that they still have a year and a half of university to complete, but would continue practical experiments as often as possible.

“The panels can be created with a 50-50 mix of cement and water hyacinth, but we believe a 90-95 per cent hyacinth to 5-10 per cent of epoxy resin mix would produce even durable, lightweight panels. Unfortunately, the resin we need is not widely available in Cambodia,” he added.

Chanchorornay reiterated that the biggest challenge facing the group is balancing their time between their university studies and the AquaBuild project.

She admitted that there had been times when she felt like giving up on the idea, but with the support and encouragement of her team members, they had finished their product design and successfully pitched tit to the judges.

She said that even though they study architecture, the competition also tested their business, finance, management, and marketing skills – topics which they had never studied before.

“In the beginning, we did not believe we could win because it was an entirely new programme for us. We simply wanted to gain some experience and improve our teamwork while learning some new skills from outside our area of study. All of the other teams were very strong, and many of them proposed some impressive products,” said Satya.

“It was an incredible experience for all of us, and we are very proud to have claimed the win,” he concluded.