On a bright morning in October 2019, teams of technicians fanned out to 20 locations across Embu County to meter various consumers of one of Kenya’s most successful water utilities, Embu Water and Sanitation Company (EWASCO).
The technicians had in hand a set of field network management tools to measure data access performance metrics such as connection data rate and latency on Safaricom’s newly introduced Narrow-Band (NB-IOT) network.
They were also armed with a variety of plumbing tools, and very importantly, ultrasonic water meters—in blue and white plastic casing—that would measure water flow accurately, even at low flow rates, with readings remotely transmitted in real-time.
Internet of Things
The combination of Safaricom’s NB-IoT Network, ultrasonic metering, and real-time data transfer was the culmination of a pilot project by Safaricom PLC and Upepo Technology to provide real-time Internet of Things (IoT) monitoring of water consumption in EWASCO.
The objective of the trial project was to relay real-time data using Safaricom’s Narrow Band IOT network from the devices at the 20 households to the Microsoft Azure Cloud with real-time mapping and analytics powered by Esri Eastern Africa’s ArcGIS Platform.
Such real-time data is important in denoting changes in household water consumption which has an impact on a water company’s operational and revenue performance but also to enhance the response of Kenya’s water sector to the Covid-19 pandemic.
By utilizing IoT devices, the consortia of Safaricom, Upepo and ESRI can provide real-time information on water consumption to a water company that can be utilized to enhance its water utility operations.
Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) connectivity, IoT device management and mapping of water utility operations, when combined with demographic information on population, age, food security and other indicators, can support and provide decision-makers with tools to respond to the pandemic.
EWASCO was selected for the study for a reason: it is one of the most successful water utilities in Kenya, evidenced by the growth it has experienced over the past seven years, during which it has increased its connections from 17,000 in 2013 to 32,000 today, according to data from the Water Services Regulatory Board.
It is also one of a few water-utility companies that have a county-wide mandate, as it serves Embu County from one geographic corner to another.
It also helped that the management of EWASCO was happy to collaborate on the trial project and Safaricom’s Narrow Band IOT network was available across Embu County.
“The aim,” said Kevin Kihara, the Managing Director at Upepo Technology Ltd, “is to achieve greater value and service by exchanging data on water consumption at the household, zonal, distribution and abstraction level for water metering across the county.”
“Each device is uniquely identifiable through its embedded computing system and is able to interoperate within the existing internet infrastructure to identify water consumption across Embu County,” said Kevin.
In Kenya, the business of supplying water is fraught with issues, the main one being the massive amounts of water that are pumped into the mains but do not reach the intended consumers.
Today, evidence of this tight supply scenario between availability and demand for water is seen in most urban areas of Kenya in which frequent and endemic water shortages have become a normal aspect of life.
Indeed, the near normal for most urban inhabitants of towns in Kenya is informal with water bowsers, cart pushers, and donkey deliveries competing closely with formal utilities strangled by inefficiencies and hobbled by aging infrastructure and persistent water losses.
Kenya’s 103 water utility companies collectively lose more than half of their water (52 percent) to physical leaks and commercial losses, according to the Water Services Regulatory Board. This is the equivalent of two of every five liters that the water service providers have treated and pumped into the mains and is known as Non-Revenue Water (NRW).
Depending on a water provider’s infrastructure and the area it serves, the companies lose between 30 and 75 percent of the water they pump into their mains, losing between KSh7.8 billion and KSh27.3 billion in the process, according to the regulator.
The net effect of these issues, says Kevin, is dual.
“More than half of the counties have utilities that cannot meet their operational costs, meaning that they are not sustainable and therefore efficiency in water service provision is very low. Many sectors in urban areas do not have water 24/7 water and have to buy water from vendors at a high cost,” he says.
The need to have running water has risen due to COVID-19, caused by a deadly virus that can be killed by the simple act of washing hands with running water and soap or using alcohol-based sanitiser.
Across the water companies, the average hours of supply fell to 13 hours in 2017/2018 from 14 hours the previous financial year, which is way below the acceptable sector benchmark set by the Water Services Regulatory Board.
Reducing the losses starts with monitoring usage, which is what Upepo Technology Company started with the pilot project in Embu.
Water monitoring helps establish a water provider’s water balance – establishing how much of the water it collects from rivers, dams, and boreholes makes it to customers’ meters.
At EWASCO, the team has recorded interesting data during the COVID-19 epidemic at the 20 points where the smart meters were installed.
At the hospital, for example, consumption of water in the first month since the first COVID-19 case in Kenya was reported has reduced by 21 cubic metres.
There have been similar trends in the hospitality and tourism facilities, educational institutions and hostels, commercial buildings, EWASCO’s offices, farms and domestic consumers.
Overall, water usage in the monitored areas fell from an average 325 cubic meters from December 2019 to February 2020 to 114 cubic metres between March 13, when the first COVID-19 case in Kenya was reported, to April 13.
There are a variety of contributing factors, such as the closure of educational institutions, entertainment spots, eateries, and the advent of working from home.
It was also evident that although commercial consumers are only 20 percent of EWASCO’s water connections, they are major contributors to the provider’s revenue. The project also proved that water consumption correlates strongly to general economic activity.
Technology to the rescue
For Safaricom and Upepo, the trial with EWASCO has provided proof that IoT can work, and there are numerous benefits for the companies that lose revenue when the water does not reach consumers and the millions of people who cannot access clean water, especially during a time like we are in now.
Using the insights generated by this model, Safaricom and Upepo hope to stem the significant revenue losses from NRW, and also provide real-time monitoring and decision-making tools for African utility companies to manage, renovate and expand their infrastructure to ensure the continued expansion of water access and reliability in the continents rapidly urbanising cities and towns.
Importantly and during the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of a robust IoT monitoring platform makes it possible to track real-time consumption of water being provided to hospitals, clinics and other health facilities to ensure that these institutions have adequate supply during this critical period.