Case Study: Askwar Hilonga
“I’m giving back to my community and this is now inspiring many young engineers in Africa… it pays more to use our education, to use our innovation, our engineering, endeavours and success to solve the real challenges in our communities.”
From poverty to PhD
Hilonga was born in Gongali, a village near the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Growing up was challenging: the village had no electricity, and with limited access to clean water people struggled with waterborne diseases. Hilonga is the youngest of 9 siblings and he is thankful that his parents encouraged him to go to school and made sacrifices for him to get an education:
“I did my best to put all my attention in studies, particularly in science because I loved science …”
After graduating from secondary school Hilonga got a loan from the government which allowed him to study chemical engineering at university. He decided to keep investing in his education and completed a PhD at the university of Hanyang in South Korea.
Tackling waterborne diseases
Hilonga saw an opportunity to help his local community tackle their problems, in particular access to clean water.
“I wanted to make my PhD meaningful. If none of my studies will help solve problems in my local community then they are useless!”
He studied the water filters people were using, he observed water samples looking for contaminants, and talked to local hospitals about which waterborne diseases were affecting his community. With all this information, Hilonga quickly concluded that the water filters were not fit for purpose.
“There is a serious problem here and we need a solution. This is an opportunity for me to provide [that] solution!”
Water can be contaminated by many different types of bacteria or microorganisms, or by heavy metals such as copper. This makes it hard to find one approach to filtrationg which works for every situation. Being imaginative, Hilonga created a nanofilter which can be easily adapted to local communities and their water supplies. After observing and identifying different contaminants from water samples, Hilonga changes the shapes of nano-materials made of sodium silicate and silver so that these can trap different types of contaminants. This is often a trial and error process, so Hilonga needs to be tenacious.
The technology is so advanced that the filters can be adapted to cater for different types of water from local communities. Hilonga can also predict how long will it take for the contaminants to saturate the filters, so he can also advise on how often the filter will need replacing.
Supporting local communities
Hilonga has also spent some time creating his own business model which values local communities. He is the director of startup business Gongali Model, which currently employs 127 local people. The nanofilter is developed by local people, using local materials and can be repaired locally as well: a huge advantage in terms of sustainability and keeping costs down.
“The local people gain a lot from this business [….] There is a lot of win-win with job creation while we are solving the inherent challenges in our community like the waterborne diseases”
Hilonga wants to roll out the technology more widely, and has launched the campaign Thirst for Life. He aims to get 1,000 nanofilter water stations across Africa, from Egypt to Cape Town, over the next few years. This will bring clean water into the lives of 5 million people. One of his favourite quotes is:
“I want to be a millionaire. Not in terms of money, but in terms of impacting millions of lives!”
He hopes one day he gets to be a billionaire, impacting not millions but billions of lives!
Hilonga’s nanofilter technology has received several awards including – from the UK – the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation 2015 sponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Family’s pitch@palace Innovation Award in 2016.