Computer science student sees opportunity in South Africa’s water crisis

South Africa has been experiencing a drawn-out water crisis, with some parts of the country subject to water restrictions. In Cape Town, for example, dams currently only have 18.6% usable drinking water left – translating into roughly 103 days of supply. It is estimated that the city’s residents are guzzling 50 million litres per day over the targeted 700 million litres, even after local government has tried a number of measures to reduce consumption. This includes publishing the street addresses of the top 100 highest water users in an effort to shame them into action, as well as encouraging residents to report water wasters (such as those watering gardens during unauthorised times of day). Similar actions have been taken in other municipalities.  

A number of entrepreneurs and water-saving innovations have emerged to tackle the problem. These include: foot-operated hand-wash basins to reduce usage at factories; split car tyres planted under lawns and crops to trap excess water; and treatment systems to recycle grey water.

And now a 23-year-old Johannesburg-based computer science student wants to add his solution to the mix. Tshepo Nkopane is the co-founder of enviroCentral, a business aimed at analysing and monitoring water consumption with its new portable device. The software was developed by Nkopane and his two colleagues – Shaun Mbhiza (a computer science graduate) and Lebohang Mkhabela (a geography major) – over the last seven months. While still in a prototype phase, Nkopane has just been selected as a finalist for the SAB KickStart Ignite entrepreneurship competition.

Nkopane was inspired to develop his technology while reading an article on the high costs of water leakages in 2015 – which the government says costs the country around R7bn (about US$560m) a year. Some experts have stated that South Africa loses more than 25% of its clean water annually due to leakages from cracked piping and poor infrastructure. These are often underground and unknown to the consumer.

“I believe that in chaos there is opportunity, and I saw opportunity in this,” says Nkopane.

His solution: a device attached to a water meter that provides real-time data to monitor consumption and determine leakages. While the concept isn’t new and there are similar solutions in the market, Nkopane explains that his product could compete on affordability, portability and simplicity (it doesn’t require any changes to existing infrastructure to install).

He adds that the aim is to eventually use the device to analyse data for large operations, like mines, and provide consulting services on how to reduce water spending.

A need for more water-wise entrepreneurs

Despite an increase in water-saving products and services in response to the country’s recent drought and resulting water restrictions, Nkopane believes it is still moderate when compared to the rise of solutions that were introduced during the electricity crisis a few years ago.

“Maybe the media is not putting enough pressure on what is happening with our water [situation] and how it is economically affecting us… or it is because people don’t feel it directly. I know they have [implemented] water restrictions in many places but yet consumption stays the same… so [maybe] people aren’t taking it seriously enough.”

“I think water is still taken for granted.”

If the water crisis continues much longer, consumers may face effects such as scheduled supply cuts or higher water rates – increasing demand for water-saving solutions.

“If you have financial penalties for using too much water, then people will feel it,” he adds.