Tanzanian scoops Africa’s engineering innovation prize

water purification
Copyright: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos

Speed read

  • Askwar Hilonga beat three other finalists who were shortlisted for the prize
  • His innovation is a low-cost nanofilter that purifies water for safe drinking
  • An expert calls for African governments to invest more in technical education

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[CAPE TOWN] Askwar Hilonga, a chemical engineer from Tanzania, is the winner of the £25,000 (about US$39,000) inaugural Africa Prize for Engineering and Innovation.

Hilonga, a lecturer at the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology in Arusha, Tanzania, and owner of a start-up, Gongali, emerged winner in a competition that was capped with the shortlisting of four candidates before final pitches to the judging panel in Cape Town, South Africa on 1June.

Winners were shortlisted from the last 12 selected from 55 applicants across Africa.

“I worked so hard in the past six months. It is no easy win”

Askwar Hilonga, Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology, Tanzania

Hilonga has expertise in water purification using nanofilters. His low-cost innovation integrates nanotechnology with sand-based filtration to provide safe drinking water for rural communities in Africa.

He asked: “What does it mean to be this famous when I cannot use even one of my 37 publications on nanofilters to respond to the needs of my community to remove contaminants killing local people?”

Hilonga now produces filters tailored to needs of specific communities. Many Tanzanians, like most people in Sub-Saharan Africa, lack access to clean water, leading to cases of typhoid, cholera and other water-borne diseases, he said.

Hilonga added that the Tanzanian government has approved the use of the nanofilter which he produces in Karatu in Arusha province and sells to individual households or as treated water at community water points.

Hilonga intends to use the prize money to buy raw materials in bulk to help reduce the cost of production, while expanding his business.

Three runners up — Kenyan Samuel Njuguna with his web-based system, Chura that allows users to move air time between their different phone SIM cards regardless of the service provider, Musenga Silwawa from Zambia for spot fertiliser application that enables small-scale farmers to apply fertiliser efficiently to crops with less time and labour, and Ernest Pretorius from South Africa for his Fence Sitter which detects tempering on fences of up to 800 metres — each won about US$15,700.

The UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering, which sponsored the awards, commended eight other finalists from Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The academy provided six months of mentoring and training for the finalists.

“I worked so hard in the past six months. It is no easy win,” Hilonga who comes from Gongali, a Tanzanian village, told SciDev.Net, adding that the prize will be an inspiration to young academics.

According to Malcolm Brinded, the chair of the judges, the engineers were assessed on the quality of their invention and technology, strength to succeed in business and the potential to expand and make profit.

Oscar Kibazohi, a senior engineering lecturer at Tanzania-based University of Dar es Salaam said: “Innovations from universities are dying in laboratories. There is no strategy to reach end users and commercialisation is lacking. African governments have to invest more in technical education.There are no shortcuts.”

Steven Chiuta, a chemical engineer at North West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa, added that there is a need for more initiatives to cater for young talents, especially those in higher education.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa/ desk.