A nano-filter water purification system for developing countries has won the inaugural Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation

Life-saving water filter wins African engineering prize

A sand-based water filter designed to clean contaminated water in developing countries has won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s inaugural African innovation prize.

The nano filter, developed by Tanzanian chemical engineer Askwar Hilonga was selected from four finalists by a panel of expert judges after a pitching session in Cape Town, South Africa, on Monday 1 June.

Hilonga said he was prompted to develop the system by the desperate situation in some African regions where people are forced to buy expensive bottled water despite living right next to a water source. He will receive £25,000 to help get his business off the ground.

Hilonga’s filter can be tailored to remove various types of pollutants based on the chemistry of the water source. It can efficiently remove heavy metals, minerals and biological contaminants, as well as pollutants from agriculture.

It was the life-saving potential of Hilonga’s invention that swayed the judges in his favour.

“His innovation could change the lives of many Africans and people all over the world,” said chief judge Malcolm Brinded.

The United Nations reports that up to 115 people in Africa die every hour from diseases linked to contaminated drinking water and poor sanitation.

Hilonga has become the first winner of the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, designed to help overcome some of the specific challenges facing the African continent.

“There is a big shortage of engineers in Africa, but there is also a great wealth of talent,” said Brinded. “Many of the talented engineers are not able to get the recognition and the backing they need to become successful business leaders or start successful businesses.”

The Royal Academy of Engineering received 55 submissions from 15 sub-Saharan countries in the inaugural year of the competition. Twelve entrepreneurs were selected to receive six months of mentoring and business training by the academy’s experts as well as experienced African entrepreneurs.

“First of all we were looking for something that is a real technical innovation,” Brinded explained. “But we were also looking for an entrepreneur who we think is capable of building a successful business. And then we are looking for something that we think might make a real contribution to African development. Something that has the chance to succeed and scale while being applicable across many countries and making a real difference to the development.”

Eventually, the long list was down to four finalists, all of which presented their business plans during the final on Monday. Each of the three runner-ups was awarded £10,000.

“It was difficult to pick the shortlist to be honest,” said Brinded. “First of all, to pick the twelve from the 55, we had at least 20 we wanted to go forward. To pick the four from the twelve, that was again very challenging. We had six or seven that were very competitive.”

The judges’ task was complicated by the fact that each of the finalists was addressing a completely different challenge.

South African engineer Ernst Pretorius competed with a fence-mounted security system designed to prevent cattle theft and poaching. Zambia’s Musenga Silwawa developed a handheld spot fertiliser applicator for small farmers, whose efficiency is being hindered by the complete lack of sophisticated farming tools. Kenyan Samuel Wangui and his team developed a SIM-card swapping service designed to address the inconsistency of mobile phone signals in the region.

The Royal Academy of Engineering has already announced the opening of the second Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation.

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