Leading African telecom network commits to combat deadly air pollution

Liquid Telecom’s network will help CfA expand its network of citizen science sensors

Code for Africa technologist Emmanuel Evance demonstrates sensors.AFRICA air quality hardware kits at schools, in Tanzania’s Mbeya district, as part of the community’s citizen engagement and education partnerships. (Photo credit: Emmanuel Feruzi / Code for Africa)

Over 20,000 Kenyans die annually from causes directly attributable to air pollution, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study (GBD). Addressing this problem, Liquid Telecom Kenya and Code for Africa (CfA), the continent’s largest non-profit civic technology network, have partnered to install air quality sensors at 3,000 sites across Kenya.

The sensors will be installed in a phased rollout at Liquid’s towers across the country, and will be powered by Liquid’s new Internet of Things (IoT) Low Power Wide Area (Sigfox LPWAN) network.

An initial 60 pilot air sensors, managed by CfA’s sensors.AFRICA initiative, have already confirmed GBD’s warnings about just how widespread and dangerous air pollution is in the country’s capital city, Nairobi. The expanded network of citizen science sensors will provide even more detailed neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood measurements for a range of airborne pollutants every 2 ½ minutes across the city of 3 million people.

Hyperlocal measurements are important because the first sensors indicate that — even on a Sunday, when traffic and industrial activity levels are reduced — Nairobi’s air quality averages 45% to 65% above the minimum safe pollutant levels set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO warns that prolonged exposure to these levels of pollution dramatically increases premature death and related health impacts, including ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and acute lower respiratory infections in children.

The problem is not confined to Nairobi. WHO reports that air pollution is the fifth largest cause of deaths and disability in Kenya, after alcohol. However, actual deaths may be higher still, with air pollution increasing the risks of multiple lifestyle diseases, from diabetes and strokes to cancers.

“Air pollution in Nairobi is a worsening problem as urbanisation and economic growth lead to substantial increases in traffic levels, construction of high-rise buildings and new industrial activities, releasing fine particulate matter into the air. Weak refuse removal services by the city also results in citizens burning plastic and other garbage on roadsides, making pollution even worse,” says CfA technologist and sensors.AFRICA lead Chege James.

Kenya’s government has tried to tackle the crisis by introducing tougher air quality regulations, through the 2015 amendment of the Environmental Management and Coordination Act of 1999.

“The authorities know pollution is bad, but no-one has until now had localised evidence about exactly how bad, or where the hotspots are. Liquid’s new IoT network will help sensors.AFRICA create a detailed map of the problem, so that everyone can understand the scale and nature of one of our nation’s biggest killers,” says Liquid Telecom East Africa chief executive officer Adil El-Youssefi.

The partnership will see the sensor network expand to Mombasa and Nakuru, as well as help pioneering partnerships with community radio stations and other grassroots watchdog organisations, and will help reduce the running costs for each of the sensors from Sh18,000 to Sh1,200 a year.

“This means that citizens, journalists, researchers and regulators will all have access to real-time data from sensors.AFRICA. Citizens will be able to understand the data, via a simple public dashboard with gauges and easy alert options for their specific neighbourhood, while researchers and regulators will have free access to the raw data via the website,” says Liquid Telecom Kenya’s head of IoT strategy, Joel Muigai.

The sensors will be deployed in a phased approach, starting with Nairobi’s central business district and surrounding neighbourhoods before moving to other towns. Pilot partnerships with civic watchdogs, such as community radio stations in Mukuru Kwa Njenga, Kibera, Korogocho Riruta, and Mukuru Kwa Reuben are already producing major investigative results, such as this data-driven story published by The Star: https://goo.gl/VAFDax.

“This investigation, which is the first in a three-part series, shows in a very practical way how air quality data can help ordinary citizens and civic watchdogs tackle public health emergencies, by giving actionable evidence for journalists or regulators validate public concerns. The sensors also allow communities to keep monitoring the situation, in real time, to ensure that any promised solutions are actually implemented,” says CfA Chief Technologist David Lemayian.


THE PARTNERS

Liquid Telecom is a leading communications solutions provider across 13 countries primarily in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa that serves mobile operators, carriers, enterprise, media and content companies and retail customers with high-speed, reliable connectivity, hosting and co-location and digital services. It has built Africa’s largest independent fibre network, spanning over 50,000km, and operates state-of-the-art data centres in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Nairobi, with a combined potential 19,000 square metres of rack space and 80 MW of power.

This is in addition to offering leading cloud-based services, such as Microsoft Office365, Microsoft Azure and innovative digital content provision including Netflix and Kwesé TV across our fibre footprint. Through this combined offering Liquid Telecom is enhancing customers experience on their digital journey.

Code for Africa (CfA) is the continent’s largest federation of indigenous civic technology and open data laboratories with CfA labs in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda and a further five affiliate labs in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco and Sierra Leone and funded projects in a further 12 countries. CfA manages the $1m/year innovateAFRICA.fund and $500,000/year impactAFRICA.fund, as well as key digital democracy resources such as the openAFRICA.net data portal and the GotToVote.cc election toolkit. CfA primarily supports grassroots citizen organisations and the media to help liberate data and empower citizens, but also works with progressive government agencies to improve digital service delivery.

In addition to funding and technology support, CfA’s labs incubate a series of trendsetting initiatives including the PesaCheck fact-checking initiative in East Africa, the continental africanDRONE network, and the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) that spearheaded Panama Papers probes across the continent. CfA is an initiative of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

sensors.AFRICA is a pan-African citizen science initiative that uses cutting-edge data science and hardware sensors to monitor air, water and sound pollution to help give citizens actionable information about their environment. sensors.AFRICA projects include air quality sensors in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, the pioneering use of hydrophone (underwater microphone) sensors to monitor illegal dynamite fishing along the East African coast, and the use of satellite / space data and weather sensors to predict extreme storms that kill over 5,000 fishermen annually in Africa’s Great Lakes region.

The initiative was seed-funded by innovateAFRICA.fund, and is being incubated by Code for Africa.