In sub-Sahara Africa, millions of people don’t have access to clean water, thus risking diarrhea and other deadly water-related diseases. Tanzanian chemical engineer and innovator Askwar Hilonga struggled with these challenges himself at a young age. Now, Dr. Hilonga is a senior lecturer at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST), founder of his company Gongali Model and most importantly: inventor of the ‘Nanofilter’.
With the use of nanomaterials, Hilonga has created an innovative water purifier that provides affordable, safe and clean drinking water. With the invention of the Nanofilter, this famous Tanzanian engineer could provide worldwide access to clean water.
“I want to be a millionaire. Not in terms of money, but in terms of impacting millions of lives”.
A Nanofilter: what is it exactly and how does it work?
The Nanofilter is a sand-based water filter which uses nanotechnology to cleanse contaminated water. So the key issue is that there are (nano)materials that can absorb contaminants. The key question is: Where do you put your materials?
I use a series of buckets. While water flows from one to another, the sand traps the debris and the nanomaterials absorb the contaminants inside a filter. The water in the last bucket is 99.99% clean drinking water.
It does not need any kind of electrical power, solar power, UV treatment, nor any chemical treatment. You just clean the filter after a couple of weeks, depending on the nature of the contaminants. We’re only in the business for three years now, but we predict the filter will last for at least five years.
And also not important to state: how much does it cost?
We sell filters at 150 USD to those who can afford it. Direct sales are mostly to the middle incomers. People with formal employment: teachers, businessmen, foreigners. But I know that many people can’t afford these filters.
So we are also establishing water stations in their communities. Our company builds a kiosk where we purify water and sell it at an affordable price - about three to five times cheaper than sealed bottles. Here, people can come with their vessels and buy clean water.
This project is sponsored by the Human Development Innovation Fund (HDIF); one of our many partners. They fund this three-year project, but we hope that with time, we can continue by ourselves.
Also, we sell filters to some NGO’s, who donate them to schools. After three years we have now sold over 500 filters.
You have over 30 partner and 20 employees. How do you reach that level within three years? What is your secret?
Let me first say that I’m grateful because I got a lot of exposure. In 2015, I won the African price for Engineering Innovation , organized by the Royal Academy of Engineering. We had a competition with 55 people from 15 African countries and I won 25.000 pound! That’s how I was able to build the company.
Later-on, I won five different awards, including the Pitch@Palace Global in London, which is organized by The Duke of York: Prince Andrew. A pitch of three minutes in front of 300 potential investors. I thank god for my passion, and for getting a proper training in pitching!
Next to the awards, I also won a 350.000-pound grant for the project from the NM-AIST , where I am a senior lecturer. The university project is part of the academic movement that wants to push products from lab to market.
So I got great support from the university and other partners who were willing to risk it with me while the idea was still in early stages.
But you talk about it with so much passion, that must be important too. Where does your drive come from? Why are you doing this?
It comes from three sources.
The first one is the poor background that I come from. I grew up in ‘Gongali’, a poor and humble village near the Ngorongoro Crater, where - like in most rural areas in Tanzania - drinking river water is still normal. I’ve been struggling with waterborne diseases myself and we still have terrible statistics in this country. Those under five years old and dying: horrible! If you go to the hospital now, 50% of the hospital beds are filled with people suffering from waterborne diseases.
So this is a significant problem to solve. That is one of my motivations. I want to help people get solutions.
“What does my PhD mean, what does all this fame means, if I cannot use it to solve challenges?”
Secondly, I want to utilize my education. I did my Ph.D. in South-Korea seven years ago, finished it in Nanotechnology. Do I want to make use of my education, because what does my Ph.D. mean, what does all this fame means if I cannot use it to solve challenges?
Lastly, there is the business opportunity. The water filter market is completely empty here! In Tanzania, there are about nine million households. About 70 percent - 6 million households - is not using any kind of water purification technology. They still use tap- and river water.
The imported filters are not addressing the local needs. Water pollutants vary in different geographical areas, depending on human activities and the geological formation of soil and rocks. In the Rift Valley, the main problem is fluoride, which affects teeth and bones. But if you go to Lake Victoria, the main problem is heavy metals; which are released into the rivers and water sources by mining companies.
“The problems are not universal, so the solutions also have to be customized.”
These challenges can’t and shouldn’t be solved by foreigners, who bring different kinds of universal filters on the market. The problems are not universal, so the solutions also have to be customized. These challenges can be solved by local engineers, who know their geography; their people; their community. That’s also why I’m here!
That sounds like it can be a bit hard to convince the customers at times?
Yes. It’s a little bit challenging to change people’s attitude. They are not used to this innovative product from Africa. Most people are used to sparkling, finished products from developing countries: gadgets. It takes time for them to see that this could really be a solution. Because what they need is not a beautiful gadget, what they need is clean water.
That accounts for the education people. With the uneducated, we have more challenges; knowledge on hygiene, sanitation, water issues. Sometimes people can’t believe the water is the source of their problems, some believe witchcraft is.
“What they need is not a beautiful gadget; what they need is clean water.”
So enough challenges ahead. What about your ambitions, your ultimate goal? What do you want to achieve?
We want to scale-up in Tanzania, in Kenya and expand to other countries in sub-Sahara Africa. But before we can grow, I want the filter to be easily transportable, convenient and esthetical. We have our own lab, where we are working on this refined filter design right now. I’ve already received requests from India, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia.
So the biggest challenge is not the money or the demand, it’s about human resource. Finding the right people; same thinking, same passion, same experience. Because with the right team, we can conquer the world! And that is exactly what I want!
Words by Vince, The Urban Detective, exploring the local heroes in East Africa for us.