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Tuesday, 30 March 2021

How Egypt’s startups are helping solve our water leakage issues

How Egypt’s startups are helping solve our water leakage crisis: Last week, we looked at local startups providing easy household solutions to tackling waste management and solar energy problems. Our spotlight on Egypt’s green tech startups continues with a topic that we’ve covered intensively on Enterprise: Leakages in our drinking and irrigation water, and what we can do to fix it.

This week, we dive into agritech startup Plug’n’Grow and watertech startup Wai Technologies, both of which are at the epicenter of a nationwide problem, which will likely get worse as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis still looks like a ways away from being resolved.

Egypt’s water scarcity is only growing: Egypt’s annual share of water per capita is 560 cubic meters, well below the 1k cubic meter threshold for water scarcity, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly recently told the UN.

Agriculture, which consumes 80% of Egypt’s water, has been seeing extensive water losses due to an ancient irrigation network and outdated methods. While concrete figures do not exist for the extent of the loss, estimates put it at around 9.5 bcm in FY2018-19, according to state statistics agency Capmas (pdf). The Nile Delta alone lost 7 bn cubic meter of water in FY2018-19 due to leakages in the canals, sources previously tell us. Read our primer on Egypt’s irrigation waste and leakages.

But beyond leakages, there is an issue of inefficient water use in irrigation. Using traditional irrigation, growing 1 kg of lettuce can consume up to 250 litres of water, Mostafa Hassanen, CEO of Plug’n’Grow tells us.

Plug’n’Grow provides new, as well as seasoned growers with water-efficient hydroponics and aquaculture systems to produce vegetables and fish at affordable costs. Hydroponics entails growing plants without soil. Aquaponics relies on irrigating soilless plants with water that was used to cultivate fish or other water organisms. The water thus becomes more nutrient-rich. Both systems can be implemented at scale using greenhouses.

The modern hydroponics systems save 85-90% of water, when compared to traditional irrigation, and ensures export-ready crops, Hassanen says. Using aquaponics can save upto 99% of water, when compared to traditional irrigation processes. The use of greenhouses allows the produce coming out of 1 feddan of hydroponics to be equivalent to the produce of 26 feddans of traditional irrigation — hence, a lot of space is saved. The founder suggests that using hydroponics for vegetables can save the water needed to cultivate essential, water-heavy crops such as wheat and rice.

The startup helps existing businesses convert traditional farms into hydroponic systems. It also consults, designs and constructs the system for new land owners. This comes with continuous technical support, software for the farm management and operations.

During covid, more individuals became interested in investing in small farms. Due to the pandemic, the produce market in Europe almost came to a halt, while interest rates in Egypt went down, Hassanen adds. This had spurred people in Egypt to enter the domain of produce export. Plug’n’Grow’s customers include big businesses, small commercial farms, as well as clients interested in building a small, self-sufficient grow house for themselves, to ensure that the food they consume is healthy.

But about our drinking water leakages? Egypt lost around 29% of its 10.7 bn cubic meters of drinking water supply (or 3.1 bcm) in FY2018-19 due to an aging network of pipelines and illegal construction, experts told us back in September. This is equivalent to 3.1 bn cubic meters. Read our primer on Egypt’s drinking water leakages.

How Wai Technologies helps plug holes in the water grid: The relatively newly-launched startup offers an AI-based solution and data analytics to pinpoint problems in the water network, such as water leakages. The startup provides a smart water platform that connects with the measurement tools of any given water company, which can detect water flow and pressure in different areas. These data points are then analyzed through an algorithm that reveals what and where leakages occur, as well as timely alerts and optimal places to place sensors. Currently, the company is piloting the project in Hurghada. The product is also available for communities and compounds with internal water networks.

While there is much more interest in saving water in agriculture through tech solutions, saving drinking water leakages could also help reduce energy consumption, Mohamed Abdelkader, founder and CEO of Wai Technologies, notes. Drinking water goes through an electricity-heavy purification process in order to be safe for consumption. This process is even more complex in the Red Sea area, due to the saltwater surroundings, which makes water more expensive.

But startups will not achieve much without policy and behavior Egypt wants to reduce the amount of leaked water to 5% by 2030, according to Egypt Vision 2030. A very ambitious goal, according to Abdelkader. But he believes that without policies that guide normal people to make more environmentally friendly decisions are needed.

Steps to address this are already being taken: The Madbouly government has made upgrading, plugging and extending old water networks a national priority. It plans to allocate part of the funding for that through settlements to violations of the building codes. The government has even begun rolling out water-saving sensors to measure irrigation leakages, government sources told Reuters back in February.

More policy changes appear to be in the offing, as the House of Representatives has finally realized that the Water Resources Act has been on its agenda for some time. Plenary discussions have reportedly begun this week in the house over the bill, which will introduce stricter penalties for water waste, while addressing pollution, dwindling resources, and climate change issues. Read our primer on water legislation that has been meandering through our legislative branch of government over many years.

Your top climate stories for the week:

  • Environment Ministry green initiatives: Eight private sector companies will take part in the plastic recycling initiatives launched by the Environment Ministry, which promised "green initiatives" to lure more players.
  • Manufacturing: Startup Brightskies and Alexandria University have received EGP 5 mn in funding from the Information Technology Industry Development Agency to locally develop technology used in electric buses.
  • Waste-to-energy investment: Green Tech Egypt will work with the military on a EGP 4.8 bn waste-to-energy project in Abu Rawash that we’re yet to hear more details about.
  • Banks ignore ESG pledges: Global banks and financial institutions have provided USD 750 bn in financing to coal, oil and gas companies in 2020, despite many having pledged to back the Paris climate accord.

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