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Low-tech Solutions Found for Africa's Everyday Problems

  • George Putic

Governments of developing countries in Africa often lack the resources and infrastructure to solve the everyday problems of their inhabitants. But every so often, authorities and local entrepreneurs find low-tech solutions with the potential for being adopted across the continent.

Access to clean drinking water is still a challenge for many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, especially for people living in large city slums, such as Mathare, in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

Many slum residents, mostly women, had to walk several kilometers to the nearest source of water, which often was contaminated.

“Then we did not trust the water, it was dirty, so we had to boil it before drinking,” said Mathare, Kenya, resident Pauline Wanza.

Instead of building a costly pipe network, the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, in partnership with the Danish company Grundfos, installed four machines that dispense clean water.

Customers pay with a smart card - about half a U.S. cent for 20 liters of water. They can add money to the card through smartphones or at kiosks.

Officials say paying with smart cards ensures the water is dispensed in an orderly manner.

“The water being dispensed by the machine here, we are sure of its quality, we are assuring them they will be getting quality water from the machine,” said Philip Gichuki, of Nairobi City Water and Sewage Company.

The water company says it plans to install more water-dispensing machines.

Clean air is another challenge for African households - as many still use open fires for cooking and heating. Breathing air saturated with toxic smoke creates lasting respiratory problems, especially for children.

“In the world today, globally, 4 million people die out of cooking with biomass energy, and the deaths are caused by respiratory related health problems associated with smoke in the kitchen,” said Mary Njenga, a post-doctoral researcher.

That could change, thanks to Kenya’s annual production of 600,000 tons of sugar, which leaves huge mounds of a byproduct called bagasse.

Kenyan entrepreneur Tom Osborn realized the bagasse could be turned into a fuel that, when burned, does not emit hazardous fumes.

“We take sugarcane waste and then we recycle this into eco-friendly, smokeless and high energy charcoal briquettes which can be used just as conventional charcoal is used in normal stoves and in boilers,” said Osborn.

Bagasse is burned in a special kiln with a reduced supply of oxygen. The resulting product is mixed with a binding agent, pressed into briquettes and packed into sacks.

Consumers say it is a huge improvement over regular firewood.

“When I started using this one, the children do not get sick and the house does not get too hot. Also the food does not have a smoky taste. It is nice,” said Linet Nyadya, who is a grandmother.

Osborn's company, GreenChar, hopes to eventually reach more than 6 million customers.