Bernelle Verster is a bio process engineer who is passionate about water, social entrepreneurship and creating products from nature. In 2012 she was named one of Mail & Guardian‘s 200 Young South Africans.
The Work I Do | I’m a Bio Process Engineer and I think most people are comfortable with what engineers do and stuff; we make software or build bridges, or chemical engineers make stuff, so basically that’s what I do, but instead of using chemicals and acids and stuff I use living things. I don’t use genetic modification, which a lot of people think I do… but I use living organisms and working with nature to produce products and, you know, clean water is one of them, but also producing products from the nutrients that I take out of the water, so the poo. Working with nature means we improve nature while we create products for us.
Interest In Water | I’ve always loved water and all my friends joke that whenever there’s water Bernelle will be in it; I’ll be swimming in the middle of winter, or if we went on white water trips I’d always be the one out of the raft swimming. And I’ve always been building little fish ponds everywhere and fish on my desk. I remember we moved into our house when I was in high school and the garden wasn’t laid out yet, and my dad came back the next day and I’d dug it into a fishpond and he forced me to cover the whole thing up again because he said it was too big.
Thinking Internationally | We have a water agreement between South Africa and The Netherlands because they’re thinking about nutrients recycling and it’s phenomenal, so that gives us a different international scope, because of the different points of view. They don’t struggle with water; they actually struggle with space, whereas we actually struggle with water more than space.
Role Of The Government | Government is doing good work. I mean, my experience of government is limited to the city of Cape Town at this stage and the city of Cape Town’s solid waste management is really, really good at the strategic services and support. They’ve been really honest and you can understand where everything comes from. The problem with governments and governance is that is that it’s a very top guy on the perch and it wants to deliver at the people and not with them. It also has this welfare idea of, you know, you sit back and we’ll just do stuff for you and I think that’s the wrong approach to take. So I would like government to be more interested in communities.
Lessons I Have Learnt | One lesson I’ve learnt in the past couple of months is that the government people that I didn’t like, the industry people that I didn’t like, the academics that I didn’t like all turned around and were so supportive to me.
Visions Of The Future | I see a fashion label that is produced from polymer, including my polymer but also hemp and flax and linen and, you know, cotton’s still there but organically produced cotton that are actually produced at the site where they will be used and so cutting down on that whole transport thing. And dyed with sustainably produced green chemistry dye… I see a franchise of sewage works, all connected by rail, which make sense, because there is a bale to rail policy for waste management. And sewage works will also be where the towns are, because it’s people who produce the sewage in the first place.
My Quirks | I don’t think there’s anything normal about me! Everybody I’ve met have assumptions about me, but I say, where, how? People think I’m a vegetarian; I’m not. I love beer, I love orange, [and] I make my own clothes. I don’t know, because I don’t really know what’s supposed to be normal, so it’s not like I willfully don’t follow the rules; I’ve just never paid attention. I don’t like wearing shoes, so I think that’s a thing that people see as well.
The Meaning Of Life | Life is about relationships; it’s the links between the different parts, if that makes sense. And I think biologically that’s the same. It’s like an electric anode. You can have two nodes but if there’s no current in there then might as well not exist. So, it’s all about the stuff in between… You as a person are important. You need to pursue your own happiness. But you’re not a person irrespective of other people. Your happiness affects other people’s happiness, which means that if you’re happy and healthy it means that other people will become happy and healthy just by being with you.
Advice For Young People | Don’t give up on your dreams. No matter how stupid they sound. I didn’t think that what I am doing was possible until about two years ago. And that’s crazy. You don’t start a PhD with something that you’re not sure about. But, you believe in it enough that the alternative is unthinkable, so if you have a dream, follow it. It doesn’t matter how stupid it is. But be willing to deal with the consequences of it, you know, you’re going make sacrifices, if you chase what you love then you also have to deal with everything else that comes with it. And the second big thing is never, ever underestimate the value of incremental change.
On Being Passionate | Find one thing that can really change your life, and I don’t care what that is. And find out more about it. Find out how it fits into the bigger picture. You’ll probably go through a phase where you’re all activist and you know, irritable to deal with. You’ll go through that phase; it’s okay – embrace it.