Tanzanian entrepreneur develops innovative water filter
Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world, and like many countries in Africa, it faces acute water shortages. Although it borders three of Africa’s Great Lakes, many people, especially in remote rural areas, lack access to safe drinking water. All too often, both surface water and groundwater sources are contaminated with toxic heavy metals, bacteria, viruses and other pollutants from mining, industrial effluent and poor sewage systems. But there is hope. A local chemical engineer, Dr. Askwar Hilonga, has developed a low-cost customizable water filtration system that promises to transform the lives of many Africans.
Having obtained his Ph.D., Dr. Hilonga (above) is using his knowledge of nanomaterials to develop the Nanofilter®. His aim: to improve
access to safe drinking water and to reduce the number of lives lost to waterborne diseases. (Photos: Dr. Askwar Hilonga)
Dr. Hilonga who lectures at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology, recently won the first Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation from the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering. The prize of GBP25,000 (TZS79 million) seeks to encourage talented engineers in sub-Saharan Africa to find solutions to local challenges and develop them into businesses.
Dr. Hilonga explains the significance of his invention and shares his aspirations for the future.
What inspired you to develop your water filter system?
The huge need in my community. I grew up in a very remote village in Tanzania and saw with my own eyes the suffering caused by waterborne diseases. Having obtained my PhD and published widely on nanomaterials, I asked myself what it all meant. At that point, I decided to apply my knowledge of nanomaterials to solve this problem in my community. That is how I come up with my Nanofilter®.
Who is it for?
Anyone can use the filter, but I am targeting rural areas in particular, because of their desperate need. In Tanzania today, out of every ten children who die, nine die from waterborne diseases. This is a huge challenge for the country as a whole, but the greatest need is in rural areas.
How does it work?
Slow sand filters have been used in water purification for over a hundred years. While they are effective in removing bacteria and some microorganisms from water – which is what I use them for – they cannot remove heavy metals, such as copper, fluoride, or other chemical contaminants. My patented filtration system combines a slow sand filter with a combination of nanomaterials made from sodium silicate and silver to eliminate toxic heavy metals. Water first passes through the sand and then through the nanomaterials. Whereas other water filters on the market offer a “one-size-fits–all” solution, the Nanofilter® can be calibrated to target and eliminate contaminants that are specific to a particular geographic region.
Dr. Hilonga is working with local entrepreneurs to establish water stations. Filters are currently rented out to 23 entrepreneurs who filter the water and sell it to their communities at an affordable price.
Each region has its own challenges when it comes to water. In some areas excessive fluoride in water, which has a devastating effect on teeth and bones, is a problem. In others, for example where mining takes place, the quality of the water is compromised by heavy metals like copper and mercury. The Nanofilter® uses nanomaterials to remove those contaminants that cannot be removed by sand. The water that passes through the Nanofilter® is clean and safe for drinking.
How much does a filter cost?
A filter costs USD130 (around TZS284000). While we do sell them directly to households, there are many who cannot afford to buy them, so we are also working with local entrepreneurs to establish water stations. At present we are renting the filters to around 23 entrepreneurs who filter the water and sell it to their communities at a very affordable price. After 800 liters of water have been filtered, the nanomaterials generally need to replaced, although this varies in accordance with local water quality. For a household, this means the nanomaterials need to be changed every three months or so at a cost of around USD5. It’s very cheap. In addition to the filter itself, our company, Gongali Model Company, a university spin-off, which now employs five people, including myself, makes and sells these nanomaterials. But we are not just selling products we are providing a convenient service which includes water quality profiling and water testing.
If we can solve our problems in Africa, we will create employment opportunities and wealth.
How long did it take to develop the Nanofilter®?
I began work on the filter in 2010. It has taken me about five years to develop it. Developing and refining the nanomaterials used was the trickiest part. I developed my first prototype just in time to enter the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. In that competition I was one of 12 short-listed entrants who received six months of business training and mentoring. That’s where I learned how to develop a business plan to commercialize my innovation. Thanks to the support of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Nanofilter® is now on the market. In Tanzania alone 70 percent of nine million households do not use any kind of water filtration technology in their homes, but people are very interested in these filters. The whole country is excited about this innovation.
Unlike other water filters, the Nanofilter®
can be calibrated to target and eliminate
contaminants, such as heavy metals, that
are specific to a particular geographic region.
Water that passes through the filter is clean
and safe to drink.
Why is it important to protect your innovation?
During the six-month business training course I learned about the importance of protecting an innovative technology. If you don’t protect it, anyone can copy and use your name, come up with a low-quality product, and undermine your business interests. So, as part of my intellectual property (IP) strategy, I decided to register Nanofilter as a trademark. This enables me to protect and maintain the quality of our brand. When I began this venture, my market was Arusha; now there is interest from across sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. Countries like Ethiopia and Uganda share the same challenges with respect to water quality. Fluoride toxicity is a problem all around the Rift Valley. In this context, it is really important to have an effective IP strategy in place.
The Africa Prize winnings will help me to scale up my operation and boost our production capacity, but we will need to bring new investors on board if we are to meet the huge demand for our filters. A number of investors have approached me, but I have to be sure of their motivation. Before I start thinking about making a profit, my first priority is to solve the problem. People need this filter so it needs to be affordable. So ideally, I am looking for investors who share the same goals and who can help to subsidize the price of the filters or reduce distribution costs. That is our goal.
What does winning the Africa Prize mean to you?
It means a lot. First of all it has motivated Africans because they see that someone values our innovation. It means it pays to put your energy into innovation and yes, somebody cares.
My focus now is to build the Nanofilter® into a sustainable business and to scale-up our operations to reach more and more people. There is a lot of interest in the Nanofilter®, so the challenge now is to build up our customer base and to ensure that our clients are happy with our product and the service we provide. But as I said earlier, my number one goal is to reach as many people as possible and to save lives and limit the number of children who die from waterborne diseases. This is what drives me.
What message do you have for young innovators in Africa?
Don’t look for jobs abroad. If we can solve our problems in Africa, we will create employment opportunities and wealth. We will have an impact and we will start building our reputation as a country and a continent that can solve grassroots challenges. Many young Africans dream of going to Europe or America but there is a lot of potential here at home. My experience demonstrates that if you go back home and serve your people, one day your community and the world will appreciate your efforts.