By Mark Kawalya
AirQo is a Ugandan start-up that develops low-cost air monitoring devices. The company has collected air quality data in more than 80 locations and monitored some sites using their cloud-based AirQo network over the last three years, providing a rich history of air quality metrics.
Sub Saharan Africa has largely lacked useable data on air quality due to the prohibitive cost of air monitoring systems. This made raising awareness for governments, individuals and businesses difficult as the severity of the problem could not be properly quantified.
Prof. Engineer Bainomugisha who designed the AirQo device with other scientists at Makerere University, attributes motorized transport, industry, burning of wood, and waste burning as the main drivers of pollution in Uganda.
Kampala, Uganda’s financial district, is home to more than 32% of the country’s manufacturing facilities, making the capital the dominant source of industrial emissions. “The city is also very busy. Millions use buses, private vehicles and motorbikes to commute in and out every day. These produce a great deal of pollution also along with the heavy traffic congestion.”Bainomugisha says.
Additionally, most of the vehicles driven in Kampala are pre-owned and have an average fleet age of more than 15 years, until regulation was introduced in 2018 to put a cap on this. With a higher rate of wear and tear, these vehicles lead to a higher annual environmental footprint compared to newer cars.
Like many African cities, Kampala has a critical data gap on the enormity and scale of air pollution. This inspired Bainomugisha to develop an air quality monitoring system that was affordable and could be deployed in African cities with poor infrastructure and limited resources. If successful, the devices will be instrumental in measuring and tracking pollution trends across the continent.
The devices work by collecting samples of air and using a light scattering technology to analyze and quantify the concentration of the particulate matter. This information is relayed to a cloud-based AirQo network that determines the pollution levels.
According to World Health Organization estimates, air pollution kills 4.2 million people each year. Air quality data is crucial in determining factors like what is causing pollution and where it occurs so that effective mitigation strategies can be designed.
AirQo won $1.3 million in 2019 and was the only African winner of the Google AI impact challenge. This enabled them to accelerate and improve their forecasting models, and currently, Kampala has one of the highest number of air monitoring systems in Africa courtesy of the company.
The firm has a mobile App that users can download to give them air quality information about different parts of the country. The app was lauded as among the most popular by Bloomberg and won the 2020 World Meteorological Organization Weather Award.
In addition, AirQo has found an ingenious method of collecting data across a wide area. Air monitoring devices are attached to boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) which traverse large areas of the country collecting data.