June 22, 2018
The audience listening to Dr. Hilonga’s presentation on the Nanofilter® Water Filtration System during the BITRI Public Seminar.
BITRI recently hosted a Public Seminar at the Avani Hotels & Resorts Conference Hall in Gaborone. The guest speaker was Dr. Askwar Hilonga, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Materials Science, specializing in Nanomaterials, at The Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Tanzania. Dr. Hilonga’s presentation on the topic “From laboratory to market – The case of Nanofilter” focused on a low cost and customizable water filtration system that he has developed.
Dr. Hilonga’s work and invention was principally motivated by his background, as according to his narration, he grew up in a very remote village in Tanzania and bore witness to common occurrence of waterborne diseases due to lack of access to clean and safe drinking water. Often, surface water and groundwater sources in Tanzania and other parts of Africa are contaminated with toxic heavy metals, bacteria, viruses and other pollutants from mining, industrial effluent and poor sewage systems, making the water not safe for human consumption. In some remote areas, communities end up of consuming this contaminated water and get afflicted with diseases such as Cholera and Diarrhoea. The contaminated water may cause non-fatal conditions such as mottling and browning of teeth, but could also result in potentially fatal illnesses such as Guinea worm disease, Typhoid, and Dysentery.
Given this background, Dr. Hilonga, armed with a PhD from a South Korean university, decided to forgo the comforts of a developed country and returned to his homeland in order to give back to the community. Having published widely on nanomaterials, he decided to apply his knowledge of nanomaterials to solve the challenge of lack of access to potable water that affects the majority of Tanzanians. This decision gave birth to his nanofilter solution, which feeding on his intellectual property (IP) strategy, he registered as a trademark.
The Nanofilter® system is inspired by the traditionally-used method of slow sand filters that have been used in water purification. The traditional method, though effective in removing bacteria and some microorganisms from water, cannot remove heavy metals, such as lead, and other contaminants like fluoride. Hence, Dr Hilonga developed a system that combines a slow sand filter with nanomaterials made from sodium silicate and silver to eliminate toxic heavy metals and bacteria. With the Nanofilter® system, water first passes through the sand and then through a nanomaterials medium that removes contaminants that cannot be removed by sand. The other advantage of the system, according to the inventor, is that it can be calibrated to target and eliminate contaminants that are specific to a particular geographic region, while other water filters on the market offer a “one-size-fits–all” solution that do not work in some situations.
Dr. Hilonga, said that he began work on the filter in 2010, and he took approximately five years to develop a prototype.
“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,” said Dr. Hilonga.
The Nanofilter® system is owned by Gongali Model Company, a company that Dr. Hilonga co-owns with his wife, the latter being mainly responsible for management and administration. Through this initiative, Dr. Hilonga continues to create employment and has garnered some interest from investors, with whom he is working to upscale the business. The current system is still malleable to refinement in both process and material used, but, it is currently working and helping to provide clean and safe water to communities in need. Dr. Hilonga encouraged innovators and inventors to follow the same approach and not wait to develop a perfect model before pursuing their projects.
Dr. Hilonga encouraged the audience to resist the temptation of seeking jobs abroad, but instead, use their expertise to solve challenges in their communities and the African continent, whilst creating employment opportunities and wealth.
“My dream is to become a millionaire, not primarily in terms of money. But rather, I would like to, with my solutions, reach at least a million people. I would then, want to expand and target even more people, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, to provide affordable and relevant solutions that can solve grassroots challenges. If we can solve our problems in Africa, we will create employment opportunities and wealth,” elaborated Dr. Hilonga.
The Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (BITRI) has established a Seminar Series to share and exchange research ideas on topics of current relevance to the BITRI mandate in contributing to Botswana’s socio-economic development. The seminars are held on a quarterly-basis under different topics.
Representatives of key stakeholders, including Water Utilities Corporation (WUC), Department of Water Affairs, Botswana Bureau of Standards (BOBS), Department of Agricultural Research (DAR), Botswana Veterinary Institute (BVI) Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH), University of Botswana (UB), Botswana International University of Science & Technology (BIUST), US Embassy, Human Resource Development Council (HRDC), National Food Technology Research Centre (NFTRC), as well as the Local Enterprise Authority (LEA) also present and participated in discussions at the seminar.