Remotely monitoring and controlling water purification and power generation in East Africa

By Swarm Technologies

October 14, 2021


In remote villages across East Africa, clean water and electricity are often difficult to come by. Drinking from local water sources such as lakes can easily result in waterborne diseases, and water is too heavy to carry long distances. Likewise, without a local power grid, it can be difficult to keep the lights on and mobile phones charged.

An innovative solution from Boston-based company OffGridBox is making locally-generated clean water and power more accessible across East Africa. To keep an eye on their systems from afar, OffGridBox has partnered with eze System to remotely monitor the health and output of their equipment, and Swarm to provide global, affordable data transfer.

Founded in 2017, OffGridBox retrofits standard 6 x 6’ shipping containers with a water filtration system and up to 24 solar panels. As the company’s name suggests, these standalone “Boxes” are deployed in off-the-grid locations, purchased by village communities that lack their own water purification and power generation infrastructure.

An OffGridBox unit in Mwogo, Rwanda. Photo: EEP Africa.

In each Box, microfiltration and UV sterilization systems can purify up to 20000 liters (5000 gallons) of water per day, taken from local water sources like lakes that would otherwise be unsafe to drink from. Even in certain areas where relatively safe fresh water has existed in the past, climate change is turning freshwater to brackish water. The higher salt concentrations quickly pollute drinking wells, leaving freshwater in short supply. OffGridBoxes uses reverse osmosis to desalinate up to 15000 liters of brackish water a day.

Each Box’s water purification system only requires about 10% of the total power generated by its solar panels. The remaining 90% is stored in power banks and sold in smaller quantities to locals, who use it to recharge mobile phones, light their homes, and power professional equipment like sewing machines, welding tools, and ice machines.

OffGridBox hires local women to run the Boxes, but despite an in-person presence managing day-to-day operations, a challenge remained of how to monitor and transmit each piece of equipment’s health and analyze water and power output. OffGridBox initially took a manual approach. “Previously we were using SD cards that we would plug in and download data from the Boxes over Bluetooth, and then have the cards sent to us,” says Emiliano Cecchini, President and CTO of OffGridBox. “We needed a more real-time solution that could be handled remotely, but many areas where the Boxes are deployed lack cellular coverage and traditional satellite data services were cost-prohibitive.”

“We needed a more real-time solution to monitor our Boxes remotely,” says Emiliano Cecchini, President and CTO of OffGridBox, “but many areas where the Boxes are deployed lack cellular coverage and traditional satellite data services were cost-prohibitive.”

To solve this, OffGridBox turned to eze System for remote monitoring and control, which has partnered with Swarm for affordable data transfer in remote areas.

Eze’s versatile IIoT solution now monitors everything from the temperature inside the Box (if sensitive electronics get too hot they can be ruined), to pressure inside the water filtration system, to the output of the solar panels. Every day, the ezeio® system will gather around 12 routine health updates on each Box, with additional 12 control commands or alerts if a problem is detected. Eze’s edge computing capabilities also allow for some on-site analytics. “We can also layer on more advanced analytics in our backend to give OffGridBox better insights into the health of their systems,” says Thomas Weuthen, VP of Business Development for eze. “Our goal is to become the ‘heartbeat’ for OffGridBox so they can monitor and control everything remotely.”

An eze System ezeio© controller with fully embedded Swarm satellite connectivity. Photo: eze System.

Given the extremely limited cellular coverage in most of the regions where the Boxes are deployed, the job of transmitting data from the ezeio® system back to the OffGridBox team will be handled by the Swarm satellite network. Emiliano says OffGridBox had “desperately needed” a satellite connection, but legacy satellite providers were always too expensive and hard to deploy. “At the end of the day, local communities are paying for our service and we can’t be charging them thousands of dollars a month for satellite connectivity,” says Emiliano. “Swarm is the only company offering what we need at a feasible price point.”

“At the end of the day, local communities are paying for our service and we can’t be charging them thousands of dollars a month for satellite connectivity,” says Emiliano. “Swarm is the only company offering what we need at a feasible price point.”

Swarm’s satellite modems will come fully embedded in the ezeio® system, making it a turnkey solution for OffGridBox, which Emiliano appreciates. OffGridBox also plans to use Swarm’s and eze’s GPS capability to track where the Boxes are, in case they’re stolen or moved unexpectedly.

OffGridBox currently has 47 units deployed across East Africa, with plans to expand operations to West Africa and South Asia, where similar water and power challenges exist. Three Boxes are now equipped with eze’s monitoring solutions, with more in the works. Data will start flowing from the ezeio® devices through the Swarm satellite network to eze’s backend platform, pending regulatory approvals, later this year.

Locals waiting to get water and stored power from an OffGridBox. Photo: Wyatt Roy

Supported by Swarm’s two-way data transfer capability, eze also plans to enable remote control and automation so OffGridBox will get an even more robust solution and can make small adjustments to their systems from afar. “Thanks to Swarm, connectivity is no longer a roadblock,” says Thomas. “It’s now about capacity and technology and we’re excited to keep expanding eze’s capabilities without worrying about data transfer.”

Improving access to clean drinking water and affordable power is exactly the kind of use case that Swarm was founded to support. We’re excited to continue working with eze System to enable remote data transfer for their IIoT solutions around the world, and we’re thrilled to support eze’s work with OffGridBox. With Swarm’s help, OffGridBox is no longer limited by cell coverage or prohibitive costs, and can deploy their technology around the world in the areas that need it most.

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