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UCL International Development Hub (ID Hub)



“Learning that oranges are meant to be green”

By ID Hub, on 1 February 2023

It is impossible to capture all the extraordinary experiences we had in such a short post. From learning that oranges are meant to be green, to actually seeing chickens fly, these are images that a city boy like me, will never forget. However for the sake of this post, I’ll share insights from the work we did in Arusha, Tanzania…

In collaboration with the Royal Academy of Engineering, UCL offered us a one of a kind placement to collaborate with an amazing entrepreneur in Tanzania. During this time, we worked with Dr Askwar Hilonga, a local scientist and entrepreneur whose main priority is providing clean drinking water to the local population with his patented NanofilterTM,  selling affordable filtered water in kiosks, in and around Arusha.

Our time there was limited, so we quickly got to work in getting acquainted with the problems at hand, that we were tasked to help with. Essentially, the company was facing an issue of dishonesty from its operators at the water stations and there was also the need for a system to collect, process, and verify sales information completed.

blue unit with front windows opening outward. A sign is below the opening, with the sign 'Nanofiler'

A Water Station

To better understand the problems, we conducted field research on our third day. At the time, customers would come to the stand, buy either refills or bottled water, pay in cash, and the operator would note down the purchase. When the operators closed for the day, they would bring the cash collected to a mobile money station, top up their mobile phones, and transfer the day’s revenue to the company via the mobile M-PESA service. By the end of that day, we could start to see the lack of checks and balances in place at the water stations, as that the company is largely relying on the operators’ initiatives to report sales and submit revenue on time.

A sales ledger taken by the operator

Henceforth, we set about installing a locked and shielded water meter at a test kiosk outside the company main office. The purpose of a water meter is obvious, but the simple idea to lock the meter up had further implications. By doing so, we created an imbalance in information. The operator could still find ways to cheat the system, such as disconnecting the meter, or manipulating the tap’s flow rate. However,  this lock would deter such behaviour by enabling accurate readings of the meter and disabling a reset. This would now allow the organisation a human-free and independent parameter that can be crosschecked with sales submissions and transactions made by the operators to the company, in order to ascertain the authenticity of that station’s performance.

On top of that, we also initiated the process to acquire an API from Vodacom to view and in turn, assisted the company in verifying the transactions made by the operators to the company. We were also able to evaluate the July performance data from the water stations, to get a glimpse of the scale of the initial problem, though the numbers were not entirely authentic since at that stage, the company did not have an independent avenue to verify the records. Nevertheless, the findings highlighted the situation most certainly needed attention.

A locked water meter

In general, we were humbled to have worked with an accomplished academic that has climbed all the way from the bottom and is now working to better his community, addressing their actual concerns. His vision of inspiring and empowering the locals in order to create a self-sustainable future, driven by innovation from fellow Africans resonates very strongly with me. As the saying goes, teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life. The power of entrepreneurship lies precisely in its ability to drive entire industries and supply chains, creating a domino effect that provides numerous employment opportunities. Dr Hilonga’s vision goes a step further, to better the lives of the people both in terms of health and wealth, and it is a vision that I, along with countless others, hope will succeed. The reality however as we eventually understood, was far more challenging than setting a goal. Perhaps we all had a rosy success story of the company in our heads when we first arrived, but the struggle continues everyday.

To all prospective interns thinking about applying, do so with a desire to learn, to contribute, and to be inspired.

Four male figures standing against a fence, facing ahead with a scenic view of clouds and hills behind them.

Dylan and amazing employees from Gongali Model


With thanks to Yanzhe Wen, UCL Chemical Engineering Alumni who participated in the Engineering a Better World Programme in 2018.