Monitoring Air Quality in African Cities Through Low Cost Air Pollution Centers

Ademola Oduguwa
Code For Africa
Published in
7 min readMar 23, 2017


Packets of black, soot-infested air welcomed me as I stepped out of my car, blurring the sight of objects some meters away. My upper and lower eyelids fought back in embrace of each other to protect me from the peppery effect of the air as I consciously tried to separate them in order to get a good view of my new environment. The street was bold and full of life, occupied by people moving in disordered patterns with great precision and speed.

The hustle and bustle of rushed feet created a non-coherent sound as they slapped against the brown tiles filled with numerous tiny holes. The air had a smell of dust and stale water. The sun showed no pity. It extracted every drop of liquid off their faces.

Exhaust, caused by an incomplete combustion of gasoline, emanated endlessly from vehicles; quickly carried by a hard breeze blowing in different directions.

I was lost in thought. Thoughts of the harmful effect of the polluted air to the people living in the vicinity.

However, I felt a sense of determination, since this is exactly one of the problems we are trying to solve with data. And I am proud to be working on it.

Tackling Air Pollution

We are working to provide insight into air pollution through low cost air quality sensors. The end goal being hard facts for people living in polluted environments to take action with. To protect themselves and their environment.

Oshodi, Lagos, Nigeria

Air pollution: the release of dangerous pollutants in the air as a result of natural phenomenon such as volcanic eruptions and landslides, to mention a few, and human/industrial activities such as driving, burning of fossil fuel, mining, open defecation etc.

These pollutants are detrimental to the health of humans and the planet as a whole, affecting the respiratory and cardiovascular system in humans, and causing acidic rain on the environment.

…the deadliest air pollutant, which can only be seen by a powerful microscope, is so tiny that it can easily penetrate the human skin and find its way to the bloodstream, where it can lead to lung cancer and other deadly diseases.

As an illustration, Particulate Matter PM2.5, the deadliest air pollutant, which can only be seen by a powerful microscope, is so tiny that it can easily penetrate the human skin and find its way to the bloodstream, where it would cause a lot of health problems that will lead to lung cancer and other deadly diseases.

CO (carbon monoxide), another dangerous pollutant, mostly from vehicle exhausts, which is caused by the incomplete combustion of carbon fuel, when inhaled, extracts oxygen from the blood, hence, putting a stop to its circulation in the body. Moreover, it is another big agent that contributes to climate change, and leads to water scarcity around the world. To put these dangers of air pollution into perspective, a 2014 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) registers premature deaths caused by air pollution every year to about 7 million worldwide.

“7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution”— World Health Organization, 2014

However, one major source of worry is that in many cities in Africa, there is insignificant or no information about air quality. This is partly due to the extremely high cost of the air quality devices and the technology needed to efficiently track these pollutants in the air.

Funding, Support, and Where I Fit In

Code for Africa will be providing funding and support for the development and deployment of efficient low cost air quality sensor across the continent, with the pilot stage to kick off in Lagos Nigeria. The goal is to employ this air quality technology to empower media houses, citizens, civic watchdog and government with the data and insight they need to enable them make decisions and take actions that will bring about a cleaner air and hence a healthier environment.

My background in hardware can be traced to some years back when I experienced firsthand, the simplicity and great ease that technology can bring to life. I was fortunate to have utilized different intelligent systems, that has given me a magical experience and thereby nurturing my curiosity about how these systems worked, such as a smart door, which opens itself when you approach it and closes after you had gone through it. On the other hand, strengthening my interest in technology.

Consequently, I had my first degree in Electronics & Electrical Engineering at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife Nigeria and have had opportunities to apply the knowledge to solving real life problems, for instance designing technologies that will help to curtail outrageous importation of locally available food, particularly to enhance the local production of rice, for which I did a business case presentation in PolyU Hong Kong. Moreso, a challenging, yet ambitious project to plant about 20,000 weather sensors across Africa to enable Africa to maximize her resources, by TUDelft and co, tagged the TAHMO initiative, which kicked off in Kenya. The challenges when you try to get technological projects done in Africa are like the sands on the sea shore, they are so enormous and not for the weak mind, yet so too are the opportunities.

The Technology

Some of the tools & components to build the air quality sensor

In the same vein, the air quality project has had it fair share of challenges from its inception, ranging from procuring the components required to build the sensor and payment. Hardware is hard, but the experience of building hardware in Nigeria makes it a nightmare.

The problem associated with getting the right components to bring your idea and design to life, alone, if not properly managed will make the project remain a design on paper. For instance, after I found a foreign online store, which had some of the most important set of components which were not locally available, I had to wait several weeks to ensure they were all stocked. And at the point when they were stocked, I discovered that the store does not also ship to Nigeria and also refused to ship to a freight forwarding service i also subscribed to, as if that were not enough, I couldn’t pay them using a global payment service due to multiple restrictions which the company had placed on their services in Nigeria. It took the kind help of wonderful friends like David Wistocki, in the United States, to make the purchase on my behalf and have it shipped to my address in Nigeria. However, refunding him was another chapter of the nightmare that was not a breeze to accomplish.

Onwards and Upwards

For me, the major obstacle to actualizing the design of the low cost air quality project has been surmounted. I have been able to purchase the components to facilitate the design, which is a very positive milestone achieved. I have no doubt that once the entire components are delivered to Nigeria; we can have the air pollution sensor up and running in a very short time, and be positioned to empower citizens, media houses, civic watchdog, scientists and the government with the data and insight they need to achieve a cleaner and healthier air in Lagos, Nigeria and by extension to other cities across Africa.

Code for Nigeria (CfNigeria) is the nation’s first civic technology and data journalism lab, based in Lagos. It spearheads the public use of open data and open source software tools to empower citizens across Nigeria by giving them ‘actionable information’ so they can make better informed decisions about issues that affect their lives. CfNigeria was established and is being incubated by its parent organisation, Code for Africa.

Code for Africa (CfAfrica) is the continent’s largest independent open data and civic technology initiative. It operates as a federation of autonomous country-based digital innovation organisations that support ‘citizen labs’ in five countries and major projects in a further 15 countries. CfAfrica runs Africa’s OpenGov Fellowships and also embeds Innovation Fellows into newsrooms and social justice organisations to help liberate data of public interest, or to build tools that help empower citizens. In addition to fellowships and citizen labs, CfAfrica runs the $1 million per year #innovateAFRICA fund and the $500,000 per year #impactAFRICA fund, which award seed grants to civic pioneers for experiments with everything from camera drones and environmental sensors, to encryption for whistleblowers and data-driven semantic analysis tools for investigative watchdogs. CfAfrica also curates continental resources such as the africanSPENDING portal of budget transparency resources, the openAFRICA data portal, the sourceAFRICA document repository, and the connectedAFRICA transparency toolkit for tracking the often hidden social networks and economic interests in politics. CfAfrica is an initiative of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).



Ademola Oduguwa
Code For Africa

A common man who wants to make an uncommon impact in the world. My vision is to create technologically driven businesses that would improve billions of lives