In 2014, a Tanzanian chemical engineer who had grown up in poverty and was surrounded by diseases due to the lack of drinking water in his community decided to create a filter with local and sustainable materials to make the water of thousands of people drinkable. Today, his invention has helped to obtain quality drinking water for more than 300,000 families in different African countries and has received various innovation and engineering awards for its wonderful design and impact on society… How did he make it?
The story of Askwar Hilonga, founder of Gongali Model
The protagonist of this story is Askwar Hilonga, an African engineer who was born on September 20, 1981, in the Karatu district, in the Arusha region of northern Tanzania.
Askwar was the last of 9 siblings in a family living in absolute poverty, having to survive on as little as $2 a day.
When he was just a boy, his family moved to a small town called Gongali.
Despite the great economic difficulties he faced, from a very young age, Askwar awoke a great passion for science and technology. He was a very curious boy and had won the love of his neighbors with his incredible charisma. These, seeing the potential of the little one, decided to support him so that he could study at school by paying his tuition. He remembers that, when he was in his third year, he had to start working to pay for school and help his family a little.
“We faced many challenges. There were nights that we didn’t know if we were going to be able to eat the next day. We had to deal with hardship and disease. We fought hard.” Askwar said in an interview.
At school, he was very diligent and dedicated. He always stood out as one of the best students, he loved to learn, and each new concept was a sea of possibilities for him.
Thanks to his curiosity, at the age of 15 he managed to build a small homemade radio with which he kept informed of some important world events.
Solving the problems of your environment with innovation
Among all the problems that the young man saw around him, the lack of drinking water always caught his attention. Day after day, he saw how, while the men of the families went to work, the women with buckets walked several kilometers to a small, highly polluted stream to collect water for their homes. This caused him, as well as his brothers and friends, to suffer constant illnesses, which in some ended up being fatal.
“Since we didn’t have toilets at home, we had to go outside, in the open air. I drank water anywhere. When I drank that dirty water, my father told me to imagine it was tea with milk.” -The young man counted.
After finishing high school, thanks to his effort and dedication to his studies, the Tanzanian government gave him a scholarship to study Chemistry at the University of Dar Es-Salam, located in the former capital of the country.
In his career, he was also very outstanding for his discipline and perseverance. In addition, he got a part-time job at his university’s water technology laboratory, where he devoted himself to studying the chemistry of water and how it could be purified.
After graduating with honors in 2007, he was again awarded a scholarship, this time to study for a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering in South Korea. There he specialized in different ways of making water drinkable with nanomaterials and membranes.
After completing his training in 2010, with the knowledge acquired and the idea of improving the lives of the people in his community in mind, he dedicated all his efforts to work on the prototype of a product that would serve to clean water from places like the one he grew up in. In honor of this, he named his project “Gongali”, after his town.
However, he soon encountered a great challenge: there were already many water filters on the market, but these were quite expensive and, given the economic conditions of his town, it was very difficult for people to access these types of products.
For years, he studied how these filters work and how they were built, which led him to the conclusion that he needed more time and capital to do exhaustive research that would allow him to find the ideal product, so in 2011 he decided to take work as a researcher at the Nairobi Institute of Technology in Kenya, to save some capital and move forward with his research.
In 2014, he got a vacancy as a professor at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology. By that time, he already had the idea of him quite developed. Askwar devised a system with different superimposed boxes that combines a sand filter with local and cheap raw materials of very small size, which he called “nanomaterials”. Its operation is very simple: the water enters the first of the boxes and, when it reaches the last, it will have gone through a series of chemical processes that eliminate toxins, microorganisms, and heavy metals to make it suitable for human consumption. This product was patented under the name “Nano Filter”.
Its prototype was launched in 2015 and won the First African Award for Engineering Innovation, with which Askwar received $30,000 in capital to further improve the product.
Initially, manufacturing a Nano Filter unit cost approximately 200 dollars, something prohibitive for the vast majority of Tanzanians. But thanks to the prize money, Askwar worked to address this issue. His solution was to produce filters and distribute them at street kiosks in rural Tanzania so that people could purify a liter of water for about $1. The money raised would be used to renew filter materials, which lose effectiveness over time.
In 2017, Askwar founded his own company called: Gongali Model, to produce and sell his water filter throughout the country. Within a short time, it became one of the leading water technology companies in Tanzania. Also, it began to develop new products, such as water purification systems for community and home use.
In 2018, Gongali Model received an investment from a venture capital fund, allowing it to further expand and build water purification units in rural communities in nearby countries such as Kenya and Zambia.
Thanks to the revolutionary nature of his idea, Askwar has received a total of 22 national and international recognitions and awards, including the World Health Organization (WHO) Health Award, the Entrepreneur of the Year Award in East Africa, and the UK Pitch @Palace Award.
The entrepreneur who seeks to improve the quality of life in Africa
Currently, the Gongali Model company generates employment for more than 200 people and provides drinking water to more than 300,000 families in different African countries. In addition, he is working on other projects with which he hopes to continue contributing to solving other problems that are common in Tanzania, for this reason, he is investigating the possibilities of solar energy and also biofuel.
Askwar Hilonga, for his part, is 41 years old and has published 55 scientific articles and 2 books. Every day he works to bring his revolutionary invention to more people and thus can improve the quality of life in his country. His short-term goal is to continue devising more affordable and efficient versions of the Nano Filter, in addition to continuing to open new points to make the water drinkable for millions of people around the world. His greatest dream is to be able to provide water purification service, completely free of charge since he believes that access to this resource is a right that all people in the world should have guaranteed.
Thus we conclude the inspiring story of Askwar Hilonga, a visionary, innovative, and disciplined entrepreneur who, thanks to his ingenuity and curiosity, managed to positively impact the lives of thousands of people who did not have access to drinking water, thus becoming a great inspiration and a benchmark for other entrepreneurs who are also working on projects that seek to generate a significant social impact. In his own words:
“I did not enter the competition to create my water filter to become famous, nor did I develop the filter to look “Cool” or become someone important in the world. I genuinely wanted to solve a real problem in my community. So my passion now is to become a millionaire… I want to become a millionaire! But I don’t mean wanting to amass millions of dollars, I mean the millions of lives I want to impact.”