Tanzanian Scoops Who Innovation Award

A TANZANIAN scientist, Dr Askwar Hilonga, has been awarded a distinguished award by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for his nano innovations to address health problems.

Dr Hilonga, from the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST), was awarded at a summit in Geneva, Switzerland.

Dr Hilonga's contribution to expanding access to safe water and reduce the risk of waterborne diseases among rural communities has been recognised at the 72nd World Health Assembly this year, where he received the 2019 United Arab Emirates Health Foundation Prize.

With millions of people across Africa his innovation can help improve their quality of life, Dr Hilonga is set to leave an indelible mark not only in Tanzania, but also in Africa and the world over.

The fact is that Arusha residents have noticed something unusual this year. No cholera outbreak during what is usually the epidemic season. A new low-cost water purification system, piloted in water stations across the city, may have something to do with it, thanks to Dr Hilonga.

Dr Hilonga, a nanotechnology engineer, obtained a PhD in Chemistry in South Korea. In 2015, at the age of 38, he launched his model of a water purification nanofilter that earned him the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation from the British Royal Academy of Engineering.

After obtaining a doctorate in chemical engineering, he studied public health in the hope of finding new ways of protecting people against preventable diseases.

"After graduating, I asked myself what my degrees meant for my community. I was not going to be satisfied with patents and papers that would just sit gathering dust on my shelf. So, I decided to only do research that would result in innovative solutions for improving the lives of my community," he said.

Growing up in rural Tanzania, Dr Hilonga suffered from waterborne diseases throughout his childhood. He used his scientific expertise in nanotechnology and his local knowledge to develop a filter based on nanomaterials.

It was meant to help those for whom safe drinking water was still a luxury, like it was for his family during his childhood.

"There was a problem and there was technology.

I told myself, let me look for a solution by combining the two, to find the solution. Engineers do not understand health "neither do doctors nor health practitioners understand technologies.

I wanted to show the natural bond between the two," he said, while smiling. Dr Hilonga worked with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Science and Technology to roll out his innovative water purification system.

He cherishes the support he was given by the government, health authorities, the media and local communities. Everyone was proud of the young Tanzanian scientist for addressing a major public health problem.

He said the real challenge for any waterpurification system was acceptance and regular use by the community. Many were initially suspicious about a technology developed by one of them.

But Dr Hilonga was able to convince local people to start using the filtration system because he understood the issues they were facing. He said women had been instrumental in the introduction of water filtration as part of daily life in rural Tanzania.

Most of the water stations where the new system is being tested are managed by women.

"I would not have made it, if it were not for local women, who took my ideas on board and made it possible," he said, adding that his goal was to encourage water purification good practices across the country and other African countries where rural populations suffered from waterborne diseases.

He previously received the President of Tanzania's National Health Innovation Award (2016) and the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation (2015) conferred by the British Royal Academy of Engineering.

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