His lauded work, named the Nanofilter—a low cost and environmentally friendly water filtration system capable of making healthy drinking water from any source, wasn’t just the product of some scientific research that he had stumbled into in a lab but the product of a cause that he has pursued right from when he was growing up in a poor rural village and watched as friends and relatives fell victim to water born diseases. The Nanofilter was his ultimate response, and after seeing it described by the RAENG as with the potential to save many lives in Africa and around the world, Hilonga is buoyed more than ever to achieve just that.

The Nanofilter makes use of sand and Nano materials to purify water. “It removes 99.999% of all contaminants in water,” said Hilonga, who is also a university lecturer and PHD holder in Nanotechnology. “It has the ability to control the properties of the nanomaterial contained in it and target it towards the removal of specific impurities in water thereby making it clean and safe for drinking, as heavy metals like copper, arsenic, fluoride, bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and even pesticides are among the impurities filtered by this innovation.” Though the water pollutants vary in different geographical areas depending on human activities and geological formation of soil and rocks, Hilonga says the Nanofilter can be custom-built to suit the needs of the people of a specific area. “The customer’s water is tested first before designing a Nanofilter that removes contaminants observed. It acts like a sieve and is therefore not released into drinking water. It does not need any kind of electrical power, solar power, UV treatment, nor any chemical treatment.”

Hilonga’s company, Gongali Model Co. Ltd, is named after his rural community, Gongali, a village located about 35km west of Arusha, Tanzania’s 3rd most populated city. It was here that he witnessed firsthand the disastrous effects of drinking unsafe water and got inspired to do something about it. But now, his goal has spread beyond helping just his community but the many around the country and continent that suffer the same challenges. “We are now preparing a strategic business plan to reach the 70% of 9 million households in Tanzania who are NOT using any kind of water purification/treatment system,” he enthused. “With potential collaborators, we are also considering spreading our impact to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.”

Boosted by the £25,000 (US$38,390) he won at the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation in June 2015, Hilonga is increasing the production of the Nanofilter and expanding his company to meet the expected need of his product. “With the Africa prize, now we are able to increase our production capacity and we will also strengthen our team by employing more people for sales and marketing.” Gongali Model Co. Ltd now has the capability to produce about 20 pieces of the Nanofiltre weekly at a cost of $130 per piece. Each piece can purify about 60 liters of safe clean water daily, and Hilonga already has about a dozen local entrepreneurs making a living out of it. “We rent the filter to them and they sell drinking water at an affordable price – five times cheaper than the bottled water,” he says. The local entrepreneurs pay his company Tsh.1,000 ($0.5) per day. Several Schools and individual households have also patronized the Nanofiltre while it is continuing to receive orders from all over Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia. “At present the demand for our filter is higher than our ability to supply,” Hilonga said. “It has encouraged a lot of young minds in Tanzania, and all over Africa, many university students and young professionals in Tanzania and across Africa have been aware of and inspired by my innovation – based on the responses we received by word of mouth and through our company’s website and social media.”

But things were not always this positive. At the start of his company, Hilonga struggled to raise capital or expand his product’s visibility. “At the beginning I was wondering if I can ever enter my products in the market due to financial limitations. I was always looking for external sources of support at least for seed capital, but my (RAENG) mentors opened my eyes and I was surprised to learn that even our university/NM-AIST can be a source of seed capital – and I got one $7,000 (£4,740).” Developing a realistic business plan and a relationship with customers were also other constraints and fortunately the RAENG came along to help with that. “I realized the importance of learning customer behaviour based on past, fact, and specific responses – this works amazingly, than I ever imagined. I learned that customers are not that much “ignorant”. They have been living their traditional life for many years, and it may not be easy for them to just change abruptly and purchase my water filter – overnight!” His driving force being not only the commercial feasibility of his product and the provision of a social need, but the motto of the institution in which he lectures; “Academia for Society and Industry.”