IBM Research

Finding Safe Water for Remote Parts of Kenya


Building resiliency to help communities attain water self-sufficiency, combat extreme drought conditions


With a population of 46 million, a staggering 41 percent of Kenyans rely on unimproved water sources such as ponds, shallow wells and rivers, a challenge especially great in rural areas. Only nine out of 55 public water service providers in Kenya provide continuous supply, leaving people to find their own ways of searching for appropriate solutions to basic needs.

Now, as part of the Kenya Resilient Arid Lands Partnership for Integrated Development (RAPID), my team at IBM Research-Africa has created a water management platform to address the needs of the approximately three million Kenyans living in the remote northern regions of the country without access to safe water. We developed the IBM Cloud-hosted platform in collaboration with various private and public sector partners, as well as representatives from local governments in the northern counties of Kenya.

In less than three years, the Kenya RAPID program has helped 268,000 people and close to half a million animals gain access to safe drinking water.

The platform, which uses sensors to provide supply and demand patterns based on groundwater extraction data, can also help service providers significantly reduce their non-revenue water (water that is “lost” before it reaches the customer through leaks, theft or metering inaccuracies).

Coping with challenges

The traditional approach to coping with water challenges, especially in water-scarce, arid environments has been to increase supply by investing unsustainably in decentralized infrastructure such as dams and boreholes to meet growing domestic, agricultural and industrial demands. Local governments and donor organizations typically finance expensive infrastructures which are then handed over to communities with limited capacity to maintain them. Water managers also lack visibility into the location, status and performance of the infrastructure, leading to an inability to respond to user feedback and a limited ability to provide repair and maintenance.

The opening of the Kapedo Community Water Project, which is a collaboration between Kenya RAPID and the Turkana County Government. Photo credit: Kenya RAPID

The opening of the Kapedo Community Water Project, a collaboration between Kenya RAPID and the Turkana County Government. Photo credit: Kenya RAPID

Now, if a citizen reports an issue to the sub county water officer, the officer can use the mobile app to quickly locate the issue and assign the complaint to a repair officer who then inspects the issue and files a site report detailing the issue and/or required resources, also using the app. Once the repairs are complete, the assigned officer files a repair report detailing what was fixed to close the issue through the mobile app.

SweetSense, a startup that works closely with IBM Research, is also installing sensors on electric pumps to measure rates of utilization and infer levels of functionality to aid in the dispatching of crews for timely repair and maintenance for more efficient management of decentralized infrastructure.

Helping water managers make decisions

Our platform can help water managers make decisions by predicting demand based on population trends, ground and surface water supply, climactic patterns and land use. The platform also provides the following features:

  • a database and interactive map for maintaining information about locations where water can be accessed throughout the counties.
  • a historical record of water drawn from boreholes, breakages and repairs that are monitored by SweetSense.
  • the capability to view geological maps developed by Acacia Water, a Dutch hydrogeological consulting firm specializing in the practice of so-called 3R methodologies applied to water, meaning the Recharging, Reusing and Recycling of water.
  • a detailed view into governance within each of the counties, associated responsibilities and contact information.

The unique public-private partnership model between Kenya RAPID, local governments, private sector, NGOs and funders with IBM as a technology partner is currently being showcased at World Water Week 2018 in Stockholm.

Editor’s note: Watch IBM’s Africa labs director, Dr. Solomon Assefa talk about the project on CNBC Africa.

This originally appeared on the IBM Research Blog.