Smart dispenser takes water closer to the poor

President Kibaki and Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn (second left) listen to Prof Jeffrey Sachs, the director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, as he made a presentation on how smart water meters work during the launch of the Columbia Global Centres for Africa. Photo/DIANA NGILA
President Kibaki and Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn (second left) listen to Prof Jeffrey Sachs, the director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, as he made a presentation on how smart water meters work during the launch of the Columbia Global Centres for Africa at KICC January 14, 2013. On the left is Higher Education minister Margaret Kamar. Photo/DIANA NGILA  Nation Media Group

On Monday, President Kibaki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn stood shoulder to shoulder in Nairobi as they followed Prof Jeffrey Sachs’ demonstration of how a smart water dispensing solution engineered by Columbia University works.

Prof Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, was unveiling the Quench device as well as launching the Columbia Global Centres Africa - Nairobi at KICC.

The Quench technology is expected to take water closer to the poor, thanks to experts at the university’s first research and training hub in Africa.

The Columbia Global Centres Africa hub is expected to be a centre of excellence in applied science and problem solving.

The centre is located in a modern 14,000 square foot building on Mvuli Road, Westlands. It employs 35 people, many hired by the Millennium Villages Project, and boosts of videoconferencing facilities and a library.


Currently standing at nine around the world, Columbia Global Centres are part of an initiative by the Manhattan-based institution to establish an international research university.

Instead of opening up campuses abroad Columbia University, an Ivy League institution, opted for centres that would provide a wide range of activities and resources intended to enhance quality research and learning.

The Nairobi-based centre supports and implements the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in six countries namely Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

The hub joins similar facilities in China, France, Turkey, Chile, Jordan, India, Brazil, and New York.

The global centres are built on the belief that establishing an interactive network of partnerships across geographical boundaries, and collaborations across traditional academic disciplines, can help address complex challenges by bringing together scholars, students, public officials, private enterprises and innovators from various fields.

“The centre will contribute positively to the achievement of the country’s Vision 2030, particularly through dissemination of objectives and research-based advice to the government and relevant stakeholders,” said Mr Kibaki.

It will also provide a base for Columbia University’s students and academics to conduct research in, and for, Africa guided by the continent’s real challenges while transforming Nairobi into the region’s academic hub which will benefit both the country and its neighbours.

Leaders in the six African countries trust that the Nairobi hub will generate practical solutions to help them overcome challenges in health, agriculture, environmental degradation, education, and enterprise.

“Ethiopia is one of the countries struggling to meet its MGDs and we are hoping that the centre will help us meet them,” said Mr Desalegn. Columbia University settled on Kenya as a research and training hub because of its robust engagement in searching for IT solutions.

Most of the tools that the centre will develop will rely on local technological advancements.

With Kenya basking on its newly acquired IT hub status, earned because of innovations such as M-Pesa, Nairobi has become a magnet of multinationals such as Huawei, Samsung, IBM, and LG which have set up regional research centres in the country.

Already, Columbia Global Centres Africa has created Quench, a smart water dispensing machine which seeks to ease management of water distribution and consumption in the country.

Basing their innovation on the MDG that seeks to halve the percentage of people with no access to safe drinking water, Quench monitors consumption of this priceless commodity and limits its use thus cutting on wastage.

Unlike existing water kiosks that need one to man them, Quench is automated. All a user needs is a smart card from the vendor which is inserted into the machine to allow purchase as well as monitor supply.

Each family is allocated equal water volumes. However, there is the option of paying for extra.

One can either pay cash, post pay, or pre-pay to access the commodity. In turn the kiosk records each transaction and monitors consumption from a server, pin pointing breakdowns in the system.

“The ministry has often said that 50 per cent of water cannot be accounted for. This (the machine) will tell us exactly how much water is consumed,” said Mr Stephen Ngigi, the regional Watershed Hydrologist at Columbia Global Centres Africa.

According to Mr Ngigi, the project was supposed to be rolled out last year but fell behind schedule. The officials are waiting for the next government to launch it.

The Ministry of Water will manage the project. Columbia Global Centres has identified mobile money transfer platforms as one of the technologies it will adopt to expand the Quench project.

The machine was created by a team of engineers from Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. The Quench project is an illustration of benefits that Africa stands to gain from technological innovations.

President Kibaki was optimistic that the centre would have positive contribution to the country’s development agenda.