When you think of rural Ghana, and the rural Sub-Sahara, the big issues can usually be distilled into three components – a need for clean drinking water, a need for sustainable sources of power, and a need for internet connectivity. Take a second now to imagine a machine that can turn contaminated water from a river, ocean or even sewage into drinking water, while at the same time generating enough electricity to power itself with surplus, and connecting everywhere within a kilometre radius to Wi-Fi.
It sounds too good to be true. And yet Spanish-Italian start-up Watly have managed to create just that! The Watly machine is a car-sized solar-powered water-purification machine which can service 3000 people, and aims to provide to rural African communities the three fundamental pillars of modern civilisation: electrical power, clean water and internet access. It is ‘H’-shaped to follow the Sun throughout the day. An incredible technological feat, it works by capturing solar energy through photovoltaic panels that line its shell, before converting that solar energy into electricity through an internal 140kwh battery.
“The only thing it needs to run are dirty water and a lot of sun”, says Marco Attisani, the 44-year old founder and creator of the Spanish-Italian start-up Watly. Ghana was chosen as the host of the first trials, with Watly machines having been provided to many villages to see just how useful and effective they are.
The solar energy generated through the solar panels helps produce clean drinking water by using a patented graphene-based filtering process. Watly’s purification process is based on the physical principle of vapour compression distillation. It is by far the most effective and powerful method of water purification available. Watly water quality is outstanding, absolutely pure, low mineralized and with a perfect pH balance. Water quality remains constant over the 15+ years of a Watly machine’s lifespan. One Watly device can deliver 5000 litres of safe drinking water each day!
It does not need to be connected to an electric grid. Watly produces off-grid electricity to power its own internal electronics (computers, multiple-screens, 3D printers and different telecommunication devices), as well as powering a charging station for external devices (portable computers, mobile phones, portable lamps, radios, televisions, household appliances). The free electricity generated by Watly is made available to people via multiple battery chargers and electric plugs. The battery also powers a connectivity hub, providing wireless internet to an 800-meter radius of a device.
Those lucky enough to trial the Watly prototypes have been astounded by the capabilities of the machine, and are incredibly excited by the prospect of having this little hub be an adrenaline shot to their infrastructure and quality of daily living.
A solar-powered machine such as the Watly is seen as potentially providing a boost to development in Ghana’s rural areas, as well as rural areas across the Sub-Sahara, where approximately 625 million people are without electricity and approximately 39% lack access to safe water.
If the trials are successful, the Watly team will look to begin a continent-wide roll-out of the devices. Founder Attisani will be presenting the final design to potential customers and investors in July, having already cited interest from leading mobile and energy companies. The team hopes to install 10000 Watly units across Africa over the next 8 years, which will help in creating about 50000 jobs on the continent. After the initial cost of build, Watly will run for free for up to 15 years, the company estimates. And in that time it will provide 3 million litres of clean water a year, enough for 3,000 people, electricity for thousands of devices, and Wi-Fi for a kilometre-wide radius.
The project has received 1.4 million Euros from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research funding program, and are planning to collaborate with NGOs and civil society on a local level. “No technology can change the world without a human factor” ,continues Attisani. “Local partners will care for the logistics, spread the word, play a role in education and leverage functionality.”
The Watly team also hopes that their devices will lead to a surge of economic growth in the areas which they serve, by becoming a launchpad upon which local entrepreneurs can start their businesses. Creating jobs, and helping bring much needed aid in the development of rural areas in Ghana and beyond, are just some of the advantages of a project which is aiming to bring the underdeveloped areas of Ghana and Africa to the heart of the 21st century.
By Dr Jermaine Bamfo (@Dr_Jabz27)