Small businesses can tap into a growing range of innovative solutions to keep track of Africa’s most precious resource


If it’s not the drought, it’s the locusts. In early 2020, with vast regions of Africa still choking on the effects of climate change and erratic rainfall, a destructive locust swarm bore down on the continent. Farmers had known for years that crops were under threat and that, of all Africa’s bountiful natural resources, water was increasingly becoming the most precious.

Some farmers have turned to solar-powered pumps as an affordable and effective irrigation solution, with Dalberg (a consultant firm to the AfDB) reporting that ‘these solar water pumps have the potential to reach up to 1.6 million households in sub-Saharan Africa by 2025 and as many as 2.8 million households by 2030 – a value of approximately $1.6 billion by 2030’. Agriculture, of course, is one of the thirstiest industries on the planet. But what about others?

In SA, pallet- and container-pooling services company CHEP South Africa found that it was using large volumes of potable municipal water to clean the equipment at its site in Cornubia, in KwaZulu-Natal. The company installed a 500 kilolitre SBS storage tank, aiming to collect and save as much rainwater as possible.

‘The idea is to use rainfall – to capture that water, which normally would just go down the stormwater drain – and then run it through the SBS holding tank. Then we use that to wash our product,’ says Wayne Ridgeway, CHEP KZN operations manager. ‘After a good rainfall we can run for two-and-a-half weeks without tapping into the municipal water, so there’s a cost reduction.’

Delayne Gray, MD of SBS Tanks, adds that ‘since the surface of the majority of the CHEP Cornubia site is concrete and it all slopes to one corner of the property, all the rainwater collects to one point. This is the lowest part of the entire property, so gravity does all the work in bringing the water to a single location. The idea for this project is to then capture as much of the water in one area as possible before it runs out of the stormwater drain’.

SBS’ largest tank model can hold more than 3 million litres of water, but Gray says that its standard ST tank range comprises 203 tank configurations, with storage capacities from 12 000 litres and upward. That’s a far cry from the 5 000 litre storage tanks so many people in the Western Cape installed during the last drought, though Gray says SBS is seeing steady growth in demand from the SME market, as businesses and communities become more aware of the importance of water security and the necessity of having stored water available in times of crisis. ‘Many SME owners – and large businesses for that matter – are paying much more attention to the way in which all the suppliers in their supply chain are doing business,’ he says.

‘Water conservation is a collaborative effort and if each part of the chain is doing something to save water, the cumulative effect can be huge. Seemingly simple acts, like logistics companies either not washing their trucks or changing their wash bays to reuse the wash water by catching it, filtering it and using it over and over again, saves several hundreds of litres of water a day. Washing-water in many industries can make use of harvested rainwater and partially alleviate the strain on the municipal water-supply system. This could include the washing of vehicles, crates, pallets, chicken houses and so on.

‘Several SMEs are also beginning to seek creative ways to reuse process water from their operations in order to both save water and reduce reliance on municipal water supply,’ adds Gray. ‘This has the obvious advantage of reducing the water bill as well.’ Here he points to the example of Atholl Heights Primary School, in Westville, KwaZulu-Natal. ‘It serves almost 1 000 pupils from around the area,’ he says.

‘The school approached SBS after realising that water had fast become the most important commodity to conserve, and recognised rainwater harvesting as one of the most obvious conservation solutions.’ But storage alone is not the solution to SA’s water challenges.

‘South Africa’s water resources are increasingly under pressure as a result of population growth and increased water demand from industrial, agricultural and other commercial activities,’ says Gray. ‘Since water sources may be contaminated through spillages, sewerage leaks, leaching and dumping, water-quality monitoring is essential to manage water, our most precious resource. Water-quality monitoring can assess all these factors to determine the condition of the water, making it possible to both manage and mitigate the influence of such factors and thereby prevent deterioration of the water source.’

Kainos Projects Africa is equally concerned about the quality aspect of water and irrigation management. ‘We do a lot of work in the smaller industrial sector, including food and beverage companies, laundromats and so on, where the re-use of wastewater is not only the environmentally responsible thing to do, but typically makes business sense as well – and more so as we look into the future with increased water scarcity impacting the security of supply,’ according to Pieter Avenant, a director at Kainos Africa.

The company uses analytical instruments to monitor water quality locally and remotely. ‘Our clients are trained to maintain the water treatment facilities in an effective way following procedures,’ says Avenant. ‘For any issues, the client will contact us to fix the problem on-site or remotely using a remote monitoring system.’

Those remote monitoring systems also enable Kainos Africa to track the quantity of water being used – a key consideration when it comes to irrigation. ‘The monitoring of water consumption can be done via magnetic flow meters,’ says Avenant.

‘Flow readings are trended on a database; set-points for consumption – instantaneous and cumulative – are set. As consumption increases above these set-points, the client and Kainos will be automatically alerted via an SMS or email.’

He, too, believes that re-use or recycling is key to optimising water consumption. ‘The best way that overall water use can be reduced is by reusing wastewater, typically through clarification, filtration and desalination technologies,’ he says. ‘With the cost of municipal water increasing dramatically over the past three years, most companies now find that water re-use projects have become much more feasible than in the past, with paybacks of two to three years becoming reality. And re-use provides increased security of supply.’

When it comes to water management, the greatest concerns are quantity (how much you’re using) and quality (ensuring it’s free of physical, biological or chemical contaminants). This is especially true in homes and small businesses, where margins are narrow and wastage has a profound impact on budgets and bottom lines. Apps, sensors and IoT are providing scalable solutions to this problem.

Xylem, for example, offers the Sensus metering system, which tracks water consumption via data-logging analysis. Its greatest value, however, is in its ability to detects losses due to leaks. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 75% of water loss is recoverable by addressing leaks, unauthorised consumption and administrative errors. Smart monitoring systems allow utilities – and homes and businesses – to do exactly that. In one example, the local utility in Walla Walla, Washington, detected more than 2 000 leaks in the first year of deploying a smart monitoring system; while in Seal Rock, Oregon, the local water district was able to bring its unaccounted-for water volumes to around 12%, below the state’s 15% benchmark.

In SA, meanwhile, the Association for Water and Rural Development (Award) launched a mobile app that monitors river flows and dam levels in real-time. The Flow Tracker app was started as part of Award’s work on supporting integrated water-resource management in Mpumalanga’s Inkomati water-management area, and has since extended to the Olifants catchment. The app has received rave reviews on the Google Play store, especially from local small-scale and emerging farmers.

A similar solution is available for households and small-business premises. GaugeIT, part of Ontec’s smart-monitoring suite, enables consumers to use a mobile smartphone app to monitor their water consumption in near real-time (readings are updated hourly), and compare it to their monthly water account. The data helps identify potentially faulty water meters and ensure accurate billing. GaugeIT is a prime example of how accessible IoT-based smart metering has become. Instead of contacting an expensive specialist consultancy, consumers can simply purchase the system on e-commerce platform Takealot.

That scalability is key to solving SA’s – and Africa’s – water crisis. Experts across the industry emphasise that efficient water management is everyone’s responsibility, whether you’re a small-scale farmer or an agricultural giant. Or, more to the point, whether you’re a large multinational with enormous storage tanks, or a small-business owner with a mobile app that lets you know if there’s a leaky pipe at your office.

By Mark van Dijk
Images: Gallo/Getty Images

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