How innovative groups are making ocean water drinkable in Kenya

There are intriguing stories to be found in desalination in Kenya.

A US nonprofit is bringing clean water to drought-stricken areas in Kenya and Haiti through its award-winning containerized, solar-powered water desalination and purification technology. GivePower’s Solar Water Farms can operate around the clock, utilizing solar and battery storage technology. Currently, it has operational farms in Kiunga and Likoni in Kenya, and La Gonave in Haiti. Eight other sites will be complete by the end of 2021.

GivePower makes two kinds of Solar Water Farms. The Max can transform up to 70,000 liters of saltwater daily into  drinking water for up to 35,000 people per day.The Mobi, a smaller, more mobile unit that is faster to deploy, can produce enough clean drinking water for up to 3,000 people per day. The new Mobi+ model, which purifies brackish water, serves up to 7,500 people per day.

The mission to bring water to drought-stricken communities began during a trek in Mali in 2018. “Witnessing young girls walking many miles for countless hours every day to secure clean water – instead of attending school – opened an emotional chasm in me that remains to this day,” wrote founder and CEO Hayes Barnard.” It wasn’t right. And it cemented in all of us a grateful perspective – a deep feeling of appreciation for the life we are afforded, and the opportunities we have to make a difference for those who cannot enjoy the same.”

The Kiunga, Kenya project, its first, also was the first desalination project approved in Kenya. In December 2016, after a “total failure” of the short rains – a brief wet season normally occurring between November and December – the people of Lamu county, who rely on rainwater harvesting because they have no local freshwater sources, were desperate. They had to walk for an hour to reach the only available water source, and it was dirty and brackish.

Kiunga, a small fishing community located just a few miles south of the Somalian border, is situated along the Indian Ocean coast, was an ideal location for the first GivePower Solar Water Farm.

The plant pumps water from shallow wells drilled within a few metres of the ocean’s high-tide mark into settlement tanks and then pushes it through purifiers that filter out sediment and any foreign bodies. The cleaned water then is pumped into membranes where a process of reverse osmosis separates the sweet and salt water. Chlorine is added to the clean water through an automated pump. The treated water, now safe for human consumption, is then sold to Kiunga residents.

For every 2 litres of fresh water channelled into holding tanks, 6 litres of salt water is redirected back into the ocean. The solar panels produce 50 kilowatts of power daily – enough to run two pumps on a 24-hour basis. The plant produces 75,000 litres of clean water a day, serving about 15,000 residents of the remote, semi-arid Kiunga area,

Mohamad Sharif, manager of the Kiunga Community Conservancy, a group set up to protect the area’s land and resources, said the plant was very popular. “We have people now travelling long distances to just come and fetch clean water here – even Somali soldiers regularly cross the border … as anyone can make use of the facility,” he said.

Athman Aboud Athman, a water vendor in Kiunga, said he and colleagues used to sell 20-litre jerry cans for 50 Kenyan shillings ($0.47) each but had to walk a long way to get the clean water.

Now the vendors’ profits have increased since the sale price remains unchanged and they can make more trips to the plant in a short space of time, while their customer base has grown thanks to the high-quality water which is easy on soap and fabric.

People use the M-Pesa payments app to access the system, and local residents pay only a fourth of a cent for every liter of water. The Kiunga facility cost $500,000 to build and GivePower hopes to generate $100,000 per year from the plant, which will go into building new facilities. Barnard hopes that the systems will fund each other to create an additional system every five years. 

GivePower, which began in 2013 as a nonprofit branch of Elon Musk’s SolarCity, also has built another Kenyan desalination plant in Likoni, near Mombasa, in eastern Kenya. 

In 2020, GivePower won the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Water Award for its Solar Water Farm technology, and in 2021, it was selected as a finalist in Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards. 

It is not the only innovative organization delivering desalination in Kenya. 

Boreal Light, a company based in Berlin, Germany, won the KfW Entrepreneurs’ Award in 2019 for its solar-powered, chemical-free, user-friendly Waterkiosk system which turns brackish water or seawater from available sources such as wells, lakes or the sea into drinkable water that is sold at an affordable price.

After treatment, the remaining salty water can be supplied free of charge for showers, toilets and for washing laundry. In many places, agriculture and fish farming develop around the kiosk. The laid pipes are also suitable for vertical farming, also known as multilevel cultivation, of cucumbers, tomatoes and beans. The rest of the water can also be used for a field supplied with drip irrigation.

Boreal Light only uses robust, universally available materials. Nothing is welded, no batteries or inverters are required, and even the motors cost little more than $100. The price of water is calculated so employees from the village can be paid, and maintenance, filters, and replacement parts can be financed over the long term.

Founders Ali Al-Hakim and Hamed Beheshti met in 2012 and came up with the idea of founding their own company. At the time, Hamed Beheshti was writing his doctoral thesis, and Ali Al-Hakim worked at a company where his ideas were often not taken seriously at his place of work. 

After three years of working on the project, they were no longer able to finance a pilot system with private funds, but without tests, no one would loan them money and the founders did not want to be dependent on investors. Crowdfunding got them through this phase and their first two plants in Kenya brought them a flood of orders. 

Atmosfair, which offers offsets for greenhouse gases emitted by planes, cruise ships, coaches, and events, discovered Boreal Light when it was looking for suitable technologies and cooperation partners in solar-based water treatment early in 2018. They worked together to develop a pilot project in Burani village in Kenya which became a model for the construction of more kiosks around the country. By the end of 2020, 16 water kiosks were in operation and another 25 were scheduled for completion this year.

Atmosfair’s financing of the 42 water kiosks “has created the largest decentralized water treatment project in East Africa”, it says. The project will also support more than 20 fish farms and the irrigation of 40.47 hectares of plantations and ultimately, more than 100 permanent jobs will be created for kiosk operators.

Germany is pleased with the partnerships. “Through a financing partnership with Atmosfair GmbH (German), and a cooperation with, Bilal Sustainable Development Project (Kenya), Boreal Light and WaterKiosk are set to implement 40 solar water desalination systems financed by Atmosfair, manufactured by Boreal Light, owned and installed by WaterKiosk and audited by Bilal Sustainable Development Project.” The installations will deliver one million liters of clean drinking water per day in total, in Wajir, Mombasa, Naivasha, Garissa, Turkana, Machakos, Makueni, Kajiado, Marsabit, Narok, Mandera, Kwale and Taita Taveta Counties, including 23 key hospitals and clinics across Kenya.

“Each of the WaterKiosk projects offsets 236 tons of CO2 per year, making a total of 9,440 tons per year for the entire project. The business sense is matched by the supply of quality water at an affordable cost to the most water security vulnerable communities in Kenya.”