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In Rwanda, PSU professor will lead clean water and energy project serving 2 million
Author: Jenny DuVander, Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Posted: April 11, 2012

A Portland State professor is set to lead a far-reaching public health campaign in Africa, serving clean water and energy to at least a quarter of Rwanda’s rural population.

Many Rwandese drink dirty water and breath soot from indoor cook fires—both leading causes of disease in a nation where the life expectancy is under 50 years old. Worldwide, contaminated water kills 1.5 million children every year, and another 1.6 million people die from upper respiratory disease.

By next spring, the project will distribute water filters and efficient cook stoves to 750,000 households, nearly all of the Western Province of Rwanda, reducing the demand for wood fuel. The project is owned and funded by water quality testing company DelAgua, and contracted to Manna Energy Limited.

Leading the on-the-ground effort is Assistant Professor of Engineering Evan Thomas, who co-founded Manna and has worked in Rwanda since 2004. “We anticipate this project will bring significant health improvements to these communities and demonstrate the potential to deploy and monitor international health programs like this on a very large scale,” Thomas said. 

About 500 of the filters and cook stoves will be equipped with a smart sensor developed in Thomas’ SWEETLab at Portland State in partnership with Portland-based Stevens Water Monitoring Systems.

“The sensors help us answer two questions: Do the stoves and filters work, and do people use them?” he said. Many international development projects rely on costly in-person spot checks, making it difficult to collect enough reliable data to prove a project’s success.

Five AA batteries power each sensor for up to a year while it measures usage and effectiveness of a stove or water filter. Cell phone networks send data to a web-based platform, where the results directly inform any adjustments to the technology or educational efforts on the ground. Portland State engineering students helped develop the sensors and will analyze incoming data.

Thomas has received about $550,000 to develop and commercialize the remote sensors—known as SweetSense—in partnership with Oregon BEST, the Lemelson Foundation, Stevens Water, and Mercy Corps, all based in Portland. Portland State co-owns the sensor technology with Stevens Water, where SWEETSense will carve out its own production area once the devices go to scale.

The sensors have already been tested in Indonesia and Rwanda to monitor a variety of international development projects, from hand washing stations to water treatment systems. This summer, the sensors will monitor a Gates Foundation sanitation program in India and a Mercy Corps cookstove program in Haiti.

Using United Nations-backed carbon credits to finance clean drinking water—a concept pioneered by Thomas and Manna Energy—makes the large scale of the Rwanda campaign possible. By next spring, a team of 2,000 Rwandese community health workers will distribute filters and cookstoves to serve 2.2 million people. Manna Energy is under contract with UK-based water quality company DelAgua to design and deploy the program under Thomas’ leadership, at an estimated cost of $50 million. Through the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism, the project will earn carbon credits to repay initial costs and finance the long-term maintenance and expansion of the project. The program is also in partnership with the Rwandan Ministry of Health and the Rwanda Environmental Management Authority.

Thomas will lead a trial distribution in Fall 2012 to several thousand homes and begin monitoring usage data. Through Manna Energy, he helped design and implement a similar effort in 2011 that delivered water filters to 877,000 households in Kenya, a program owned and managed by Vestergaard Frandsen.

Photos: Assistant Professor Evan Thomas sits with beneficiaries of clean water in Kenya.