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Air, an unexpected source of drinking water thanks to this Kenyan invention

Design: Didier Kassaï for Heidi.news

It is not uncommon for no drops to come out of the tap in Africa, sometimes even for days at a time. This water-related stress increases as the population grows. But have we really exploited all possible sources of drinking water? Kenyan entrepreneur Beth Koigi has found a new one with her eyes up in the sky: her futuristic innovation transforms air humidity into drinking water.

This article was originally published in French on Heidi.news. It is the ninth episode of an exploration entitled "11 African Solutions for the Future World".

Most of the freshwater reserves of our blue planet are not where we expect them to be. It is estimated that there is six times as much water in the air as in all the world's rivers. Beth Koigi repeats this legendary estimate to anyone who will listen, as if to provoke astonishment. "If you have air, you can have drinking water," the 29-year-old Kenyan often sums up at conferences or competitions in which she takes part. Beth Koigi is a regular on the podium. In France, her innovation won the EDF Pulse Africa prize. In England, the Royal Academy of Engineering placed her among the finalists for Africa, while in the United States, her solution won second place in the Water Innovation Award organised by the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The Kenyan has succeeded in defying the elements by turning air into drinking water. Its futuristic device, called Majik Water, captures atmospheric humidity using dehydrated, sponge-like materials. Solar panels then heat the material and form water vapour which, once condensed, is filtered to turn into drinking water. Together with her two British and Canadian partners, Beth Koigi is still immersed in the development of her technology today.

Democratising access to water

"The three of us are united by the desire to democratise access to water so that everyone in the future will have a clean and renewable source of water wherever they are," explains Anastasia Kaschenko, a Canadian environmental scientist and co-founder of Majik Water. Beth Koigi and Anastasia Kaschenko met a few years ago, far from the desert steppes of Kenya, 15,000 km away in the heart of Silicon Valley. It was on the occasion of a challenge organised by Google which brought together entrepreneurs from all over the world, all committed to solving major global issues. Beth Koigi explained for the first time her ambition, considered a little crazy at the time: to create drinking water with air. But for her, it was a matter of course.

Read the article in French: L'air, source inespérée d'eau potable grâce à cette invention kényane

In her country, water cuts have always been untimely during extreme heatwaves. In 2016, the drought was so severe that the Kenyan woman, who was still a student at the time, did not have a drop of water available for days. Anastasia Kaschenko:

"During this drought, people from all walks of life were affected by scarcity. Those who could afford it bought bottled water for drinking. Everything else, i.e. all domestic water consumption, was kept to a minimum".

The poorest were reduced to drinking dirty water, waiting for better days. In order to alleviate future shortages, Beth Koigi became convinced of the need to find new sources of water supply –springs that would not depend on the traditional distribution network, which was supplied by surface water or depleting groundwater. While researching, the young woman realised that the solution was right in front of her and around her – in the air she breathed.

In Kenya, 10,000 people die every year because of water.

Today, Beth Koigi and her two associates are carrying out experiments in the field. In Kenya, Majik Water has been set up in a children's centre and a school in an arid area. 500 children have thus had access to drinking water every day. In this East African country, access to clean water is sometimes a matter of life and death. "More than 10,000 deaths a year are attributed to water-borne diseases caused by drinking dirty water," says Anastasia Kaschenko. This is an issue that Kenya shares with the rest of the continent. In Africa, 70 to 80% of diseases are attributed to poor water quality according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Access to safe drinking water is still a luxury; less than a quarter of Africans have access to it.

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What will it be like in thirty years' time, when the continent will have an additional 1.3 billion inhabitants? The figures in the latest UN World Water Development Report are not very optimistic for Africa or the rest of the world. "More than 2 billion people live in countries under high water-related stress... This stress will become more acute as demand for water increases and the effects of climate change intensify," the report notes. It adds:

"Global water use has been increasing annually by about 1% since the 1980s. Global demand for water is projected to continue growing at a similar rate until 2050. As a result, more than half of the world's population will be living in water-stressed regions within five years."

Faced with these alarming statistics, Beth Koigi and her ten or so employees prefer to remain optimistic and seek solutions to increase the water production capacity of their innovation. The first models could produce 20 litres per day. This year, Majik Water is moving to a new scale. In South Africa, the Kenyan company is currently testing two devices for industrial customers that can produce 1,000 litres of water per day each. With only two machines that produce water from the atmosphere, the company will be able to meet the basic clean water needs of more than a hundred people for a year.

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Didier Kassaï is a self-taught illustrator, watercolorist and cartoonist, born in 1974 in the Central African Republic. His first comic book, L'Odyssée de Mongou, was published by l'Harmattan BD in 2014. The following year he published Tempête sur Bangui, in two volumes La Boîte à Bulles. For this series on African solutions, he created eleven original illustrations for Heidi.news.

11 African solutions for the future world