Liquid Telecom Partners With Code for Africa to Map Deadly Air Pollution in Kenya

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Liquid Telecom Kenya’s Internet of Things (IoT) network lowers cost of network of ‘citizen science’ sensors

Liquid Telecom Kenya has partnered with Africa’s largest non-profit civic technology network Code for Africa (CfA) to install air quality sensors at 3,000 sites across Kenya, following warnings that air pollution is killing more than 20,000 Kenyans a year.

The sensors will be installed in a phased rollout at Liquid Telecom Kenya’s towers country-wide and powered by the company’s new Internet of Things (IoT) Low Power Wide Area (Sigfox LPWAN) network.

The nationwide rollout follows a pilot exercise in Nairobi with 60 air sensors managed by CfA’s sensors.AFRICA. The pilot has confirmed widespread and dangerous air pollution in the city, supporting estimates from the Global Burden of Disease Study (GBD) that 20,739 Kenyans are dying each year from air pollution.

The expanded network of citizen science sensors will provide detailed neighbourhood measurements of airborne pollutants every 2 ½ minutes.

Such measurements represent a key tool in combatting pollution. According to results from the pilot sensors, even on a Sunday, when traffic and industrial activity levels are reduced, Nairobi’s air quality is averaging 45% to 65% above the minimum safe pollutant levels set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO warns that prolonged exposure to pollution at these levels sharply reduces life span, causing health issues such as ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and acute lower respiratory infections in children.

Across Kenya, the WHO reports that air pollution is the fifth largest cause of deaths and disability after alcohol. However, actual deaths may be higher still, with air pollution increasing the risks of multiple lifestyle diseases, from diabetes and strokes to cancers.

“Air pollution in Kenya is a worsening problem as urbanisation and economic growth lead to substantial increases in traffic levels, construction of high-rise buildings and new industrial activities, releasing fine particulate matter into the air. Weak refuse removal services also result in citizens burning plastic and other garbage on roadsides, making pollution even worse,” said CfA technologist and sensors.AFRICA lead Chege James.

Kenya’s government has moved to tackle this crisis with tougher air quality regulations in the 2015 amendment of the Environmental Management and Coordination Act of 1999.

“The authorities know pollution is bad, but no-one has until now had localised evidence about exactly how bad, or where the hotspots are. Liquid Telecom Kenya’s new IoT network will help sensors.AFRICA create a detailed map of the problem, so that everyone can understand the scale and nature of one of our nation’s biggest killers,” said Liquid Telecom East Africa Chief Executive Officer Adil El-Youssefi.

Under the partnership the sensor network will be expanded to Mombasa and Nakuru, with Liquid Telkecom Kenya’s IoT network reducing the running costs for each of the sensors from Sh18,000 a year using traditional WiFi networks to just Sh1,200 a year.

The network will also underpin partnerships with community radio stations and other grassroots watchdog organisations.

“Citizens, journalists, researchers and regulators will all have access to real-time data from sensors.AFRICA. Citizens will be able to understand the data via a simple public dashboard with gauges and easy alert options for their specific neighbourhood, while researchers and regulators will have free access to the raw data via the website,” said Liquid Telecom Kenya’s Head of IoT Strategy, Joel Muigai.

The sensors will be deployed in a phased approach, starting with Nairobi’s Central Business District before moving to other towns. Pilot partnerships with civic watchdogs, such as community radio stations in Mukuru Kwa Njenga, Kibera, Korogocho Riruta, and Mukuru Kwa Reuben are already producing investigative results, such as this data-driven story.

“This investigation shows in a very practical way how air quality data can help ordinary citizens and civic watchdogs tackle public health emergencies, by giving actionable evidence for journalists or regulators to validate public concerns. The sensors also allow communities to keep monitoring the situation, in real time, to ensure that any promised solutions are actually implemented,” said CfA Chief Technologist David Lemayian.