Tanzanian innovator rises to solve water sanitation problems

A local innovator in Tanzania has devised a solution that seeks to eliminate all the problems associated with unsafe/unclean water and sanitation. It will help locals avoid related diseases. What's more? His solution is low-cost and requires no power compared to many other water treatment technologies. It is also made from local materials, is recyclable, and versatile in that it can be tailored to treat water in vartually any location/area. The nano-filter combines nano-filtration technologies with sand-based water filtration techniques. It has already been rolled out in the market and is gaining ground. 

While many innovations have been launched by local experts to solve similar challenges, what can be done to commercialize them and increase sustainability and viability? The 38 year old engineer learned more about this through some training organized by a UK-based academy. 

The challenge of safe water in Africa

Provision of safe drinking water and sanitation remains an important aspect in fighting related diseases that kill 115 people each hour in Africa. Delivery of clean water through local solutions plays an important role in solving the problem. Thus, encouraging local innovation is central to achieving key targets towards access of clean water and sanitation in sub-Sahara and the world over.

A young chemical engineer, Dr. Hilonga from Tanzania is rising to that challenge through his latest low-cost innovation. The sand-based water filter that treats contaminated water through nanotechnology could save thousands of people from diseases related to poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water. In Tanzania, it is helping people to buy clean drinking water at a price five times cheaper than bottled water. Growing up in the rural Gongali Village, the engineer was brought up in an environment where they could not afford bottled water and where waterborne diseases were common. “Now that I have graduated my Ph.D from South Korea (specializing in Nanotechnology), I am asking myself an 'ethical question' - what does my Ph.D mean to my community in Tanzania which is still suffering from water borne diseases? So, now, I am focused in developing nanomaterials that are suitable for water purification, and I am seeing a commercial feasibility for this venture.” He said about his innovation, which has already been rolled out through his company Gongali Model Co. Ltd.

The solution is driven by three factors - addressing social needs, commercial feasibility, and technical capacity. Speaking to CleanLeap via email, he said his solution does not involve any kind of electrical power, solar power, UV treatment, or chemical treatments. “We have demonstrated we can fabricate up to 20 filters a week and have knowledge to devise bespoke filter materials. This is evidenced by some 37 publications on how to synthesize different kinds of nanomaterials by controlling reaction conditions. The final products have desired properties, namely: controlled porosity, large surface area and pore volume, desired functional groups, and uniform distribution. They are of low-cost and environmentally friendly,” added the engineer.

The new filter can produce up to 60 liters of water per day and costs only $130 per piece. According to him, the solution removes 99.999% of all contaminants in water including bacteria, viruses, heavy metals, and fluoride. Designed by the Tanzanian chemical engineer, it works by absorbing all contaminants in water, including heavy metals and minerals. It also takes out bacteria, viruses and other pollutants present in water.

According to the 38 year old Engineer, the first step towards designing the right nanofilter for a target customer is testing the water and determining what contaminants it has. The filter is made from a mixture of nanomaterials optimized for treatment of waterborne diseases in the target area. Thus the new solution will be helpful in a country where 88% of child deaths occur due to water-related problems. Development of the reusable filters is based on an analysis of the most common filters in an area. The PhD holder borrows much of the ideas from his 37 publications on the trademarked Nanofilter. The fact that they can be designed for water treatment in a specific area makes nano-engineered water treatment technologies possible to tailor customer-specific applications. It is also, in comparison with other water treatment technologies, more efficient and cost-effective since it requires no power to run. It is built from local materials and is fully recyclable


Commercializing local innovations in the developing world

Development of local solutions into business ventures has always been a key challenge. Another issue is definitely how sustainable and competitive these innovations are in the local market in regard to pricing and applicability given high competition. In most cases, local innovations are bound to fail if they cannot be applied over wider geographical borders.

Working with platforms that allow exchange of ideas between firms and across borders could help increase the value of local innovations and avoid duplication of initiatives. This is where initiatives such as Africa Prize step in. As an initiative of the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering, it plays a critical role in helping local innovators such as Hilonga to commercialize their innovation. Africa Prize awarded Hilonga the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation in Cape Town this month after it was voted the most promising engineering innovation in the region out of the 15 short listed submissions from different innovators in sub-Sahara Africa.

Dr. Hilonga’s solution is making some progress towards commercialization since he has received some training, funding and mentoring from the initiative by Royal Academy of Engineering. No doubt it seeks to provide solutions to the most pressing of human needs, water. Lack of good sanitation and clean water is not a problem in Tanzania alone, but developing countries as a whole. “At the beginning I was wondering if I can ever enter my products in the market due to financial limitations. I was always looking for external sources of support at least for seed capital BUT my mentors opened my eyes and I was surprised to learn that even our university/NM-AIST can be a source of seed capital – and I got one,” Says Hilonga.

The solution has now been embraced by 10 local entrepreneurs who are operating water stations and Hilonga’s company rents filters to them. These produce water and in return pay his company Tsh.1,000 ($0.5) per day. Five schools among the nine schools using the filter were sponsored by a Canadian Charity to have the filter installed. According to him, nine households are already testing the waters. What’s more, Hilonga has gotten orders from Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia. He is looking forward to increasing his sales and marketing force. This is in addition to the plan being put in place by the company to reach 70% of 9 million households in Tanzania that are not using any water purification/treatment systems. He said the company will, with support from collaborators, spread to other regions in sub-Sahara.

Dr. Hilonga with a local water entrepreneur who sells water at Tsh. 750 per 20 Liters

Image: Dr. Hilonga with a local water entrepreneur who sells water at Tsh. 750 per 20 Liters

He says the training at the academy has taught him on how to develop a good business model, commercialize the product amidst much competition, to brand the product, diversify the products and deal with potential customers. “Now I have even changed my way of introducing my product to customers: I realize the importance of learning customer behaviour based on past, fact, and specific responses – this works more amazingly, than I ever imagined.”

The academy that sponsored the training has recently received additional submissions from individuals with engineering innovations. This will be the second Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation competition. Other supporters of the Africa Prize are Shell Centenary Scholarship Fund, Consolidated Contractors Company, ConocoPhillips and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.