Crises can stimulate innovation, but support is needed to help it take flight

At the time of the 2017/2018 Cape Town water crisis, I was attending the African Leadership Academy (ALA). Shocked that a global city was going through water stress and that it was facing the genuine possibility of its taps being turned off, my colleague Wuntia Gomda and I began to research water scarcity. We found out that in Gauteng, where ALA is located, it was the same case; twelve and a half million people, including ourselves, could potentially be without water very soon.

Although at the time we were only just becoming aware of it, water scarcity is currently one of the biggest challenges worldwide. In 2019, the World Health Organisation estimated that almost 800 million people around the globe don’t have access to clean drinking water and 40% of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. To add to that, roughly 320 million people in Africa are living in a water-stressed environment.

Looking more closely at Cape Town’s water shortage, we learned that the problem wasn’t a lack of water but a lack of usable water. We were determined to find ways of turning the water that is available but unusable into clean water that could be used for various purposes. We consulted our Academy’s faculty leaders to create an action plan. We were encouraged to build a project that would not only make water usage on the ALA campus more environmentally sustainable but would also be a test case for what could be implemented in cities across Africa.

We called this The Living Machine, a wastewater treatment system that has the potential to filter over 300,000 litres of greywater, per year. We started working on it in our first year. At the same time, we found out about the UAE-based Zayed Sustainability Prize and how it supports the growth and advancement of sustainable solutions and projects worldwide. We immediately set about applying for the $100,000 award for the Global High Schools category (Africa region).

Wuntia and I worked on our project proposal throughout our first year and the summer break, even though I was in Kenya and he was in Ghana, and neither of us had an internet connection in our homes at the time. We submitted our proposed plan and were selected as finalists in the Global High Schools category from a pool of over 3,000 applicants. The moment we were announced as the winner is one, I’ll never forget!

That was just the beginning. Devising the solution was easy. Implementing the plan was a totally different task. We broke ground on June 10th, 2019 and thought it would take about two weeks to finish. In the end, working with a team of scientists and a construction company, and with a great deal of support from our ALA faculty advisors, it took us six months to complete.

Since launching The Living Machine in December 2019, the greywater it recycles is being re-used in an aquaponic system growing fish, providing water for crops for various agricultural projects on campus, and supplying the sprinkler system around the ALA facilities. The crops grown using the water will be used to advance food sustainability initiatives in townships across Gauteng. Simultaneously, on the ALA campus, Head of Science and Technology, Hans Sowder, has incorporated it into the biology curriculum to illustrate biological concepts in action for the students. Overall, the Living Machine is expected to positively impact 5,000 people over the next ten years.

I’m proud of the impact our solution is having, especially in terms of supporting the learning of Africa’s future leaders at the Academy, but I’m not stopping there. I believe that our biggest calling is to serve and serve with diligence and purpose for our people. So, since graduating from the Academy, I’ve founded a Greentech company called Mazi with the vision of leading the urban e-mobility revolution on the continent by providing clean, cost-effective, and efficient transport for every country in Africa.

We’ve started by converting matatus, used by tens of thousands of Kenyans for transport daily, into electric vehicles. Our solution is already four times cheaper than fuel and will continue to decrease in price over time. We are also building a smart infrastructure network that will utilise surplus electricity production at night to provide Battery as a Service (BaaS) swapping stations. By managing the infrastructure, we will ensure quality standards for matatu owners and provide insurance and free service for the first year of conversion.

Just as a crisis inspired my journey into innovation, I don’t doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic is pushing young entrepreneurs like me to develop new solutions to solving their communities’ problems. Wuntia and I had the support of our school and funding from the Zayed Sustainability Prize to help us turn our idea into reality. As a recent report on building resilience in Africa states, it’s essential that the necessary policies and innovation support are in place to ensure that young innovators like us get the opportunity to spread our wings and take Africa to new heights.

The Zayed Sustainability Prize is now open to innovators across Africa, spanning small to medium enterprises (SMEs), non-profit organisations, and high schools, with sustainable solutions across Health, Food, Energy and Water. Enter today by visiting – deadline 6th May 2021.

SME’s and non-profits must enter an existing sustainability solution in one of the Health, Food, Energy, or Water categories. The Global High Schools category invites student-led projects or proposals, based on one or more of the four aforementioned sustainability sectors.

AUTHOR: Jesse Forrester, Founder at Mazi Kenya and ALA Alumna

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