In 2018, South Africa was a world leader for two reasons: its macadamia nut production and being the home of the first major city on the brink of a water shortage collapse.

Murendeni Mafumo, founder of start-up Kusini Water, is using the waste from the one to tackle the problems of the other. “The way we look at it is, the communities we need to impact don’t have money to buy water, so what’s the best way to get them the resources they need? We sell to those who can afford it to cover those who can’t,” explains Mafumo about the Kusini model. “In some cases we do not have partners who directly fund projects in communities, especially in this case where the Gauteng province funded it for a community. But, in essence, our model is that we sell premium water through various channels. We also work with events such as the Oppikoppi music festival where we supply them with water. The proceeds generated from that are helping to build the system right now in a school Hammanskraal.”

DE-SALINISATION TECH A chemistry graduate from Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), Mafumo ensures that Kusini Water’s true strength lies in its technology. A planned V&A Waterfront concept store will give patrons a transparent view into the inner workings of the on-site desalination as well as the tangible social impact of the project. Pretreatment is done in two phases, one is an activated carbon process that sources its fuel from macadamia nut shells. These shells are a waste product of our world-beating nut production and burn easier than charcoal, so while there is still carbon emissions from creating the activated charcoal, it is far less than the current industry norms. The second phase is nano filtration. This is a trick he picked up during his studies at CPUT (the campus is renowned for its work in water filtration in the textile industry). “I was doing a whole lot of research in the space, especially materials that I was using for water treatment, and I decided to do my own thing at that time.” But the real magic, if you’re familiar with the energy cost of the reverse osmosis (RO) process, which pretty much strips sodium molecules from H2O by forcing it through a microscopic filder, is the solar-powered process.“We’re doing roughly four or five cubic metres per hour, so plus/minus ve or six kWh in that,” he says. “Because of our pretreatment and optimised processes, we’re able to draw as much power as we need during the day and we’re able to store that power to run the process almost non-stop. We do have a back-up system, but we don’t think that we’ll need that, based on our current calculations. There’s also an energy recovery system built on the RO system.” The bottled water that consumers can buy goes through this process and far exceeds the hallowed SANS 241-1 drinking water standard. Mafumo says the Kusini product also exceeds the more stringent US EPA standards.

THE OTHER 25% Mafumo has rarely put a foot wrong since Kusini Water successfully hatched from the Red Bull Amaphiko start-up incubator, partly due to his reluctance to scale too quickly. “At the moment we’re relatively regional,working with the province of Gauteng. Gauteng has quite an interesting geography. Where I am right now, in Hammanskraal, the water is very brackish; we’ve been given mandate by provincial government to provide water to three of the schools here,” says Mafumo.

“There’s definitely interest on a regional level, but nothing on a national level yet.A part of me is glad that we don’t have a lot of interest because it brings a lot of pressure that we don’t necessarily need at this stage.”With between 75-90% of urban South Africa having access to piped water, not much attention is given to the 10-25% of the population who have to wait for the daily truck to quench their thirst.

“What’s happening right now in places such as Hammanskraal, is when people come from work they bring a bottle of water with them. That’s money that’s taken away from things such as transport and food. We want to take that burden away from communities,” he says. The organisation leverages the Internet of Things (IoT) and places data-connected sensors on the water systems it installs. Commercial partners and customers can then see, in real time, where the project is helping. For every one litre sold to a customer who can a ord to buy it, 20 litres is distributed to communities who can’t. But Mafumo is quick to add that it isn’t a mere donation. Those proceeds enable the less fortunate to gain a technological leg-up into the decentralised water network of the future. Kusini is helping the people of Witbank overcome the challenges of groundwater contaminated by the coal mines.Water is empowering the forgotten citizens of our country and washing away some inequity, one litre at a time.