When asked to think about some of the most significant challenges facing 21st-century society, availability of water might well be one of the first concerns to come to mind. Not surprisingly for many countries in Africa, solving water scarcity is particularly high on the agenda.
Kenya is one such country where almost all of the nation’s 47 counties face severe challenges around continuous water supply. According to Kenya’s National Water Master Plan, the country’s growth in water availability will increase marginally by 2030, yet its average demand for water will have risen by 81 percent. With just 55 percent of the population currently having access to affordable water, it’s a complex problem that requires urgent attention.
Upepo Technology is a Kenyan technology firm that develops IoT (Internet of Things) solutions for the country’s water sector. The company partners with utilities to deploy smart water metering devices that provide real-time monitoring of water infrastructure, moving towards a more holistic view of water consumption in Kenya, with the ultimate goal of providing access to water for people across the country.
Chief Executive of Upepo, Kevin Kihara, explains that part of the difficulty in improving access to water is a fragmented approach to water management. “With 89 separate utilities managing the country’s water and sanitation services, it’s become very difficult to measure water consumption and performance levels,” he says.
The country’s low access rate to water is further compounded by water lost through physical leaks. In fact, it’s estimated 42 percent of Kenya’s treated water is lost as non-revenue water, costing the sector an estimated $76 million in annual revenue. Developing IoT solutions that deliver accurate water consumption data can help inform decision-making for the managers of thousands of African water utilities and community water associations grappling with inadequate water supply and sustainability issues.
Upepo’s IoT metering devices with sensors across urban and peri-urban water utilities in Kenya provide access to real-time data from these devices, and with this information, Upepo can not only accurately measure and manage water, but also predict future trends in consumption to help improve water supply. Working with Microsoft4Afrika and using Microsoft Azure, a highly scalable platform, Upepo can grow faster and deploy more devices, with the goal to improve the reliability of water for 2.1 million households.
Upepo’s solution secured the company a Microsoft AI for Earth grant in April 2019, which provides access to cloud and AI tools, as well as opportunities for education and training on AI and investments in innovative, scalable solutions. With the grant, Upepo will enhance its capabilities to deploy low cost IoT devices that receive real-time data for decision-making, insight and early remedial action to reduce water losses and enhance revenue across the water value chain from the river, reservoir and borehole; to the tap, water kiosk and the many communal watering points across Kenya. Upepo will also leverage Microsoft AI to support water service providers in managing, predicting and preparing for growth in higher demand for water due to growth in population, urbanisation and economic growth.
For Upepo, the agility of Azure has proven invaluable to the business’ ability to grow and innovate. “As a start-up, we’ve been able to use Azure to make and unmake mistakes, try new ideas and different ways of doing things. Azure is almost like our safety net and because of the grant we’ve been able to try new things and scale up according to our plan of work.”
In fact, since accessing the grant, Upepo managed to scale its solution to an additional two water utilities, bringing the total number of utilities it works with to six. Ultimately, Upepo’s goal is to scale its water management solution beyond Kenya to other countries across the world where water scarcity is also a challenge.
Upepo is also one of the startups that has benefitted from the Global Social Entrepreneurship programme. The Global Social Entrepreneurship programme has benefits aimed specifically at elevating startups addressing an important social and/or environmental challenge through their products, services or operations. This global initiative is designed to help social enterprise startups build and scale their companies to do good globally. Microsoft believes in providing the foundational building blocks to help social entrepreneurs create companies that can achieve worldwide impact.
Kevin Kihara, Upepo’s CEO and Co-Founder says, “Microsoft’s Global Society Entrepreneurship programme is a pivotal turning point for African social enterprises to immediately access critical Cloud, IoT and AI resources with supporting business mentorship and IP Co-Sell opportunities to deliver products with widespread and positive impact on the wellbeing of millions in an era of rapid economic growth, urbanisation and climate change.
“In the case of Upepo and its business mission to in the next two decades to manage and measure the aggregate demand for fresh water across Africa, the outsize ambition and focus of Microsoft’s Global Entrepreneurship Programme matches our lofty vision to tackle the systemic challenges that the continent faces in providing clean, adequate and safe quantities of water for today’s use and for future generations,” he comments