“I want to be a millionaire. Not in terms of money, but in terms of impacting millions of lives,” remarked Dr. Askwar Hilonga. And his list of professional accomplishments and accolades is nearly as vast as those ambitions.
Hilonga grew up in Gongali, a poor and humble village near the Ngorongoro Crater. Like in most rural areas in Tanzania, families in Gongali would drink river water. As a result, Hilonga has struggled with waterborne diseases throughout his life.
Motivated to alleviate such illnesses and give back to his home country, Hilonga pursued his Ph.D. in nanotechnology. After obtaining his degree, he invented the Nanofilter, a low-cost water purification system. Hilonga entered the Nanofilter into a variety of scientific competitions, which ultimately rewarded him fame as well as enough prize money to fund his own company, Gongali Model Company.
What does my Ph.D. mean, what does all this fame mean, if I cannot use it to solve challenges?
Through his business, the scientist creates filtration systems customized to specific regions in Africa. By avoiding a universal, one-size-fits-all approach to filtering water, Hilonga is able to address the problem of heavy metals near Lake Victoria, while tackling the fluoride issue in the Rift Valley.
“These challenges can’t and shouldn’t be solved by foreigners, who bring different kinds of universal filters. These challenges can be solved by local engineers, who know their geography, their people, their community,” noted Hilonga.
Next on his to-do list? Creating a filter that is easily transportable, convenient and esthetical. These updates will allow for greater expansion of the product throughout sub-Saharan Africa and other regions. Already, he’s had requests for the Nanofilter from India, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia.
Reflecting on the work he’s accomplished and the positive impact it has had close to home, Hilonga has a powerful message for the next generation of innovators. “I want to challenge you Africans to not look for jobs abroad,” he said. “If we can solve our problems in Africa, we will create employment opportunities and wealth. We will have an impact, and we will start building our reputation as a country and a continent that can solve grassroots challenges. Many young Africans dream of going to Europe or America, but there is a lot of potential here at home. My experience demonstrates that if you go back home and serve your people, one day your community and the world will appreciate your efforts.”
About the Africa Storytelling Challenge
The inaugural Champions of Science®—Africa Storytelling Challenge took place between May and August 2018. Open to all scientists doing innovative work in Africa, the contest drew more than 100 submissions. An independent selection committee of scientists, policymakers and science journalists reviewed the applications and selected the winners. Each winner will be awarded $5,000 and will have the opportunity to share their stories at the 2019 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, D.C.