Tanzanian alumnus and Africa Prize 2015 winner, Dr Askwar Hilonga invented Nanofilter, a low-cost, locally customised and environmentally friendly water filter, which can remove any water contaminants.
We interviewed Hilonga about his innovation, experience of the Africa Prize and tips for fellow innovators
Can you briefly describe your innovation and tell us what inspired you to create it?
I invented a low-cost water filter called Nanofilter. Nanofilter is customisable to selectively remove any water contaminants, such as bacteria, chemicals, or organic matter, in different geographical areas. Nanofilter does not use electricity as it relies on gravity and does not add any chemicals to the water.
There is a huge social need for this product. 70% of Tanzanians lack access to clean and safe drinking water. This leads to poor health and untimely death due to the spread of water-borne diseases, particularly in children under five years-old.
Nanofilter is locally manufactured using locally available materials. It is cheap to produce, easy to maintain, and reliable, unlike other imported filters, which are expensive to produce and maintain, consume electricity, and are not customised to local needs.
Working with local entrepreneurs who operate water stations and kiosks, my business model allows me to reach many grass-roots communities in under-served areas. Nanofilter reaches across all socio-economic classes and is a long-awaited solution for Africa.
I am motivated by social impact. I am determined to be a millionaire - not in terms of money, but in terms of impacting millions of lives.
What are the main lessons you have learned through the Africa Prize training and alumni programme?
The Africa Prize training opened my eyes when I was struggling to establish my business in 2014. I learnt many lessons, such as the power of launching a ‘Minimum Viable Product’ to market. I put this into action immediately, and it worked! I also learnt about marketing, pitching, how to look for and maintain partnerships, grant applications, and many other things.
I am so grateful that through the Africa prize I have been introduced to the global market, gained international media coverage and visited many countries around the world. I am also thankful for the mentorship, networks and partnerships, and everything that I received from the Royal Academy of Engineering.
What stage are you at now and do you have any immediate plans for Nanofilter?
At present we are well established in Arusha, a region in north east Tanzania. Our plan is to establish 1,000 franchised water stations within the next five years. The focus will be areas in Tanzania, Kenya, and Zambia affected by high levels of fluoride. We aim to generate $1.5m revenue, create more job opportunities (at least 1,000 by 2025), and provide clean water to five million people.
We are on the move to scale up within Tanzania and across Africa, where private owners will be allowed to run water stations. We already have franchisees in Tanzania, Kenya, and Zambia, and there is great demand from elsewhere across Africa.
What impact has your innovation had so far in your country or abroad?
We have achieved commendable and sustainable results in various areas. I’m so excited that in 2019 we generated $157,000 in revenue (excluding grants), while impacting 250,000 people with clean and safe water. We also created 90 jobs – mainly for women and youth - 20 of which were permanent staff jobs and provided work for 130 other self-employed people including local entrepreneurs, welders and security guards. We have established 90 water stations, sold filters to 95 institutions and about 1,000 households.
Thanks to these results we have won 18 awards, for example Africa Innovates for SDGs. In 2019, Nanofilter also gained global exposure after winning the World Health Organization Health Prize, facilitated by the Tanzania Ministry of Health.
Do you have any experience, stories or advice from your experience of adapting during COVID-19 that you would like to share?
We handled COVID-19 in a different way all together. Because we did not have any strict lockdown conditions in Tanzania, we were able to continue with our business as normal (while following health precautions and personal protections like good hand-hygiene and wearing masks). We thank God that none of our team contracted coronavirus. We were financially challenged because some of our customers were understandably not able to purchase our products as they did before, however at present things are getting back to normal.
What one tip for success would you give to your fellow innovators?
THINK BIG, START SMALL, LEARN FAST, GROW QUICK! I applied this life principle and it works! Above all, embrace partnership and seize every opportunity that comes your way.
Read more about Nanofilter.