How macadamia nuts and the sun are powering clean water

Words: Mooketsi Nthite Video: Tenn iBair

eMalahleni is an old coal mining town in Mpumalanga province, about an hour and a half east of South Africa’s capital Pretoria. It’s known as the electricity production hub of the country, boasting the largest coalfields, power stations and steel manufacturing plants in Africa.

Behind the facts is a dirty secret: the town is currently experiencing a water shortage and water quality crisis due to a breakdown of the town’s ageing water infrastructure. Pipes from the Witbank Dam – the largest municipal dam in the southern hemisphere – to the rest of the town are leaking, while filtering systems regularly function at only 50% capacity.

Entering the city limits, it becomes clear that the water crisis isn’t the only problem bothering eMalahleni. The tranquil drive along the modern N4 highway became ratchet as soon as we took the eMalahleni offramp. The tar road rapidly deteriorated into a dust road riddled with so many potholes it looked like it had been bombarded by a meteorite shower.

After a few minutes of manoeuvring around bowling ball sized craters, an accidental detour into a hardcore ghetto squatter camp and eventually, we found what we were looking for: a blue shipping container branded with the Kusini Water logo. It sat at the end of KD Ndhlovu Dr, a few meters before the tarred road deteriorated into another dusty, pothole-riddled path from hell that leads into the sprawling Extension 11 squatter camp.

We were a bit late after the bumpy ride but just in time for the cutting of the ribbon, celebrating the official opening of the first Kusini Water container. For R1 a litre, Kusini Water fills up large water containers with their purified water, amounts people can comfortably use for bathing, cooking or laundry. Kusini also sell 500ml bottles at R5 a pop, which is cheaper than the cheapest cooldrink can you’ll find at any township spaza shop. Kusini’s biggest competitor sells 5L at R15.

The company, which has six employees, was founded by 31-year-old scientist and social entrepreneur Murendeni Mafumo, sells the cheapest purified water in the country focussing on underdeveloped areas struggling with access to clean drinking water.

By placing their solar-powered containers in the heart of these communities, it also allows people the convenience of walking shorter distances for their water, instead of travelling long periods to rivers or communal taps where there are long queues of people already waiting.

There’s a neat twist in the technology. It works by using macadamia nuts to filter harmful chemicals from any polluted water source, using a process of reverse osmosis to remove 99.9% of all bacteria and viruses. The five-stage treatment process starts with a disk filter that filters out all solids, then it is filtered again by the macadamia nut shell filter, third stage is a sediment filter, then the water is pushed through a nano-tech membrane finally followed by UV sterilization.

“I used to work in the Johannesburg and Cape Town municipality’s water and sanitation departments, modelling and designing their water purification systems,” says the humble inventor from Venda, Limpopo province.

“But I soon realised that unlike highly urbanised areas, rural communities struggle with access to clean, affordable drinking water so that’s how I started Kusini Water. I chose eMalahleni because the water quality in this community is below the national safety standards.”

The current location in eMalahleni’s Extension 11 is semi-permanent and Kusini have the flexibility to move if needs be. Murendeni’s short term plans is to plant another Kusini container in the rural village of Vhembe, Limpopo, by the end of November. “This time it’ll probably be inside a school or clinic, we’re still finalising” he says.

Long term plans are to roll out 100 000 of these Kusini Water containers around Africa within 15 years, but considering the H20 crisis burdening eMalahleni, maybe he won’t have to look that far.

And who knows? Perhaps one day eMalahleni will be more famous for producing water than for coal and nightmarish roads.

More info on Kusini here.

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