While building her own water filter as a college girl, Beth Koigi now develops a solar heated device which enables off-grid communities in Kenya to harvest water from air.
Her first attempt at fixing water problems was as a first-year college student at Chuka University on the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya. Tired of her white T-shirts turning brown after washing them, but too broke to afford a water purification system, the at that time 22-year-old Beth Koigi made a do-it-yourself water filter. “Most disturbingly was the fact that many people were even not aware of the risks of drinking this water as it might not affect your health in the short term, but may cause problems like kidney failure in the long run due to the high levels of led in the water”, the now 27-year-old Kenyan tells.
5,000 self-designed water filters
While doing a Master in Project Planning and Management at the University of Nairobi, Koigi started a successful business that sold over 5,000 self-designed filters in five years. However, the big drought at the end of 2016 was a big turning point. “The sale of my water filters sharply dropped because if you don’t have water, what are you going to filter?”, Koigi tells who decided to shift her focus from water contamination to water scarcity.
Koigi wondered why everyone spends so much time and energy to fetch and transport water while there is atmospheric water generation technology that can be utilised to access the water right where you are. With this idea in the pocket, the Kenyan applied for the Global Solutions Program that made her join the Singularity University at Silicon Valley in the US where she met her current business partners Clare Sewell (33) and Anastasia Kaschenko (24). The ladies shared the same vision to help solve the water shortage issues around the world and soon Majik Water was born.
Six times more water in the atmosphere
“Although there is six times more water in the atmosphere than in all rivers around the world, this source of clean drinking water has not been utilised much,” Koigi says who admits that Kenya offers some challenges though. “While most technologies to harvest dew, fog, or mist are expensive and only work in high humidity of 60 per cent and above, we had to find a way that would work in low humidity of 35 per cent which is common in most s semi-arid areas in Kenya and would be cheaper as our target groups are low income communities in rural and urban settings.”
Combining their knowledge and experience, the three-lady team developed a device that makes use of silica gel. “This material appears to be extremely suitable to absorb and hold water, even in low humidity. When heated, it releases water vapour that is then condensed and the material can be reused over and over again once heated, what makes it also cost effective.”
Heated with solar concentrators
They decided to go for a community water generator that can produce larger quantities of water that will be sold through a water kiosk. “This is more cost effective than focussing on individual households and we want to create a sustainable business”, Koigi explains. With the help of a US$17,500 award they won at an innovation contest in France, the ladies developed their prototype that makes use of solar concentrators to heat the material directly, which is way cheaper than making use of traditional solar power.
“One lesson we learned is that we cannot predict a community’s reaction as we work with new techniques”, Koigi states. “You would expect that when you hand out water filters, people will use them but most will stop after five days as it’s not their usual behaviour.” Therefore Majik Water puts lots of time and effort in market research and currently runs a pilot to make sure that they develop a product that works in their target communities. Koigi: “Because at the end, we want to see a world where a woman doesn’t have to walk for hours just to get water but everyone will have access to clean water.”