Read the original article on the UN science policy and business forum here.
Back in 2014, whilst still at college, Victor Shikoli and Brian Bosire worked installing taps in hospitals and hotels across Nairobi, Kenya. When they received complaints about their taps not working properly they wanted to fix the problem.
However, the problem wasn’t with the taps themselves but lay with Nairobi’s notoriously unreliable water supply.
Water wasn’t reaching people’s taps.
And so Victor and Brian established HydroIQ, a virtual water network operator with the aim of using smart water meters and integrated data to revolutionize the water industry, initially in Nairobi and then across Africa.
Since its creation in 2017, HydroIQ has received seed funding from Techstars, the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and AB InBev to develop its devices and software. The company now has seven full-time staff working from their head office in the Kenyan capital and a pipeline of 14,000 installed smart devices and SmartBilling software to-date.
But for Victor and Brian the progress made so far is just a drop in the ocean of their ambition.
In an interview for the UNSPBF Green Technology Startup Initiative, Victor explains more about the water infrastructure needs in Africa, HydroIQ’s unique business model and the current challenges and opportunities for tech startups in Africa.
Why is developing a reliable water infrastructure so important across Africa?
Roughly 50% of water is lost before reaching the customer. This is a shocking amount of water loss, especially when you consider how fast Africa’s population is growing. Africa is the new China in terms of population growth. By 2025 there will be 230 million young people between the ages of 15-24.
FACT: 1.6 billion people are expected to live in African cities by 2050 where water stress is most acute, according to the World Bank.
What makes HydroIQ well placed to address the water supply challenges in Africa?
Digitisation in the water industry across Africa is now key to capturing a bigger market.
In Kenya, the government has banned cash payments to tackle the spread of COVID-19. Mobile payments have become more important than ever and HydroIQ’s system of mobile payment is ahead of the curve here.
We’ve developed our own end-to-end data platform which uses AI to monitor, map and forecast water usage demands and to spot leakages across the city. It’s a really powerful tool most utility companies don’t have at their disposal.
We have also built an adaptable platform that is able to digitize existing analogue water meters using a QR code sticker and accompanying app called HydroIQ Snap which we are launching on 17 August 2020.
What are the challenges HydroIQ and other African tech startups face in scaling up their businesses?
The utility companies see the need to modernise and digitise their industry to cut costs and improve the customer experience. While the will is there, these companies are reluctant to invest in new technologies such as ours (each device costs between USD100-150 per device to purchase and install).
The large utilities are unwilling to take risks with tech startups such as ours. They would rather work with large multi-nationals than with domestic tech startups because the risk to them is lower. So right now, we’re working with property management companies to trial our systems on a smaller scale which we hope will build confidence amongst the big utility companies.
What does the future of tech startups in Africa look like?
I believe the 4th Industrial Revolution will transform Africa into a global powerhouse. We can see this already especially in the Fintech industry, but also in healthcare, education and retail.
While we are seeing some positive signs from public organisations in terms of water regulation to help the consumer, we need governments in Africa to better support startups to grow and manage the high risks and costs associated with starting a business.
FACT: Forbes estimates that the mobile technology and services industry in sub-Saharan Africa has generated 1.7 million direct jobs (both formal and informal) and contributed USD144 billion of economic value, equivalent to 8.5 percent of the region’s GDP.
What is the future of HydroIQ?
At HydroIQ we see a big opportunity in Africa as a digital continent. With the development of smart cities, we see a strong need for HydroIQ’s advanced water monitoring infrastructure. Our goal is to connect 300 million homes across the continent by 2030 .
We’re looking at expanding into the agricultural sector and providing irrigation monitoring. We are also working on an idea to develop ‘water ATMs’ for informal settlements to increase access and reduce the price for urban poor by 80% where piped infrastructure does not currently exist.
The water industry in Africa has not seen the same technological leapfrogging as in other sectors. I believe HydroIQ is in the best position to change this and disrupt the entire water business.