It looks a bit like a terracotta flowerpot sitting in a white plastic pail. But the CeraMaji water filter does much more than look nice on a windowsill – it saves lives.
This modest vessel cleans drinking water of the contaminants that cause diarrheal disease, a leading cause of pediatric death in Third World countries.
It's the brainchild of a dedicated group of University of Alberta students who took the innovation from hypothesis to sustainable, non-profit organization. Since introducing the CeraMaji filter with the Kenya Ceramics Project in 2007, they've now got a factory in Kiminini that employs 10 Kenyans and is producing 400 filters per month to sell to the people of Kenya and Uganda.
"That's my proudest moment – when I see somebody in town just going to a supermarket, picking up one of my filters and then walking out with it," said Kenyan Ceramics co-founder Abdullah Saleh. "The real challenge is how do you motivate somebody to invest in something like that? That's the real success, that you make people want to buy it instead of giving it to them."
The idea for the filter was sparked while Dr. Saleh was an undergrad, working with HIV-infected mothers in Ecuador. He wondered why mothers were choosing to breastfeed their babies instead of using formula, and realized much of the reason was the contaminated water they would have to use to make the formula.
"Women end up making the difficult decision between diarrheal disease and exposing their children to HIV. And diarrheal disease is a more guaranteed cause of death under the age of five," Dr. Saleh said. "I thought, really what I should be trying to do is to work on developing the technology to purify water cheaply and effectively."
During the course of researching this problem, Dr. Saleh read about an intriguing technology: if you combine clay with organic materials (such as sawdust or sugar cane waste) and fire it in a kiln, you end up with a porous medium when the organic material burns off.
By this time, Dr. Saleh had been admitted to the University of Alberta medical school, where he met Abraam Isaac and Tyler van Mulligan, fellow students who shared his enthusiasm about using the technology he'd unearthed to create water filters.
"We recruited a potter in Edmonton, and we developed the first prototypes based on some half-baked notions about how pottery would work and with a lot of his guidance, we took them to the microbiology lab and started testing them," Dr. Saleh said.
The results were promising – when giardia spores from mice feces were introduced into the water, the filters eliminated 100 per cent of the contaminants. While they had their results confirmed at a provincial lab, the students self-funded a trip to Kenya on their summer holiday to do a "needs analysis" of the country.
It was a trip that drastically changed their idea about the project.
"Initially, what we thought we would do was develop a model for how to [manufacture the filters] find a group, show them how, and they were going to do it," Dr. Saleh said. "Obviously that wasn't the case because when we got to Kenya, we realized the very first problem that we were facing was that the kilns they use don't reach the temperature to make these filters."
In addition to the technical problems of actually getting the filters made, Dr. Saleh and his medical school teammates were concerned about quality control.
"We're trained [as physicians]to do no harm, we have to make sure we don't harm them in the process," he said. "We realized we'd have to build a kiln, and build a workshop, and find people to work in that workshop."
Then came the challenge of getting the filters out to people who needed them. The traditional model, according to Dr. Saleh, would have been for them to sell the filters to non-profit organizations, who would then distribute them for free. But in order to create true sustainability, Dr. Saleh said, they needed to motivate Kenyans to want to invest in the filters themselves.
"We had to run the organization as a non-profit, employing staff as a break-even operation to ensure sustainability, and selling filters at an affordable cost," he said.
Kenyan Ceramics has a marketing team on the ground in Kenya, demonstrating the filters at supermarkets and working with women's groups to get the filters into rural areas. The pitch to potential consumers goes like this: Each filter costs about $10 and will serve a household of five people for two to three years. That $10 is less than the cost of one round of typhoid medication for just one person. (When the filters get too old, they plug up and stop working, another element of quality control.)
In the past year, Kenyan Ceramics has sold about 3,000 filters to consumers in Western Kenya and Uganda. Though they still fund the project through grants and donations (they are hosting their annual fund-raising gala March 9), Dr. Saleh says that once they absorb the cost of the infrastructure, Kenyan Ceramics should be able to run sustainably from the sale of the filters.
It's an essential element of Innovative Canadians for Change, the non-profit organization Dr. Saleh co-founded with another U of A alumnus, Ali Aboud. It's a group of volunteers dedicated to developing technologies in response to a community problem, Dr. Saleh says. But central to the organization is the idea that they have to follow through from concept to sustainable implementation.
"We make sure we're not just these silos – of think tanks, of implementers, of monitoring and evaluation. What's different about ICChange is that it bridges the gap between all these things," he said.
Jessica Hogan was an 18-year-old nursing student when she was recruited to help with the Kenyan Ceramics project, and is now director of education for ICChange. She says Dr. Saleh and his cohorts have been able to find volunteers willing to fund their own trips abroad and dedicate themselves to the cause because "they really stand out in a crowd."
"In a continent like Africa, there's graveyards of unfinished projects and they really do have the commitment to see things through," she said.
ICChange's latest project is in the Kinbera slums in Kenya, where they have developed technology to link up the many medical clinics spread throughout the slums so that the clinics can share resources and eliminate the waste of duplication.
"I'm learning to be a surgeon and I get to operate on people one-on-one," said Dr. Saleh, who is now a surgical resident at the University of Alberta. "But when you develop a technology that impacts hundreds of people and it allows you an expression of your ideas in a completely different way, as long as you're very judicious and very careful about the 'doing no harm' part of it, then it's such a rewarding field."