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Update 2021/11/5
Water Tech

Swiss Startup taking Clean Water Tech to Africa


WT Interview with Manon Renfer, WataLux, Nov 2, 2021

WT: I have Manon Renfer from Watalux in Switzerland on the phone with me, thanks for doing this, Manon. Can you tell me a little bit about Watalux, the Antenna Foundation, how your model works, a little bit of history and what you are up to these days?

Manon Renfer: Thank you for having me. I am in charge of communication for WataLux, which is a spin-off of the Antenna Foundation.

The Antenna Foundation was created 30 years ago, by Denis von der Weid, a Swiss lawyer and human rights activist. He decided to create this foundation to find solutions and advanced technology for the most disadvantaged people on the planet because he found that most of the research was for the minority of people who already had so much, and the most disadvantaged people didn’t have much research dedicated to eradicating poverty. 

So the Antenna Foundation is based in Geneva, Switzerland. It has several different research topics: energy, nutrition, medicine, to prove scientifically if traditional medicines are useful or not, to have scientific proof of them. There is also a unit working with schools, how to make those solutions available for the children and educate them. There is also our agroecology unit and one based on water and hygiene. Watalux is a spin off around the WATA product, developed by Antenna. It is a small electro-chlorinator, this creates chlorine from a brine of salt and water.

WT: If I am in an extremely bad situation where the groundwater is polluted, this device that Antenna Foundation has financially backed – this device, using only some salt and some power creates chlorine. I’m wondering, how did this come to be? I’m trying to make the jump from, usually people use some type of filtration system, like LifeStraw or something like that, and this seems quite different, because its chlorine based. Where did this idea come from? How come you didn’t go down the filtration road?

Manon Renfer: Chlorine is one of the most used means to disinfect water. It's not useful if the water is turbid (having suspended particulate matter), you need to filter it first. To take away all the germs and bacteria and viruses, chlorine is one of the better ways to treat water quickly, in about thirty minutes. One of the biggest advantages of chlorine is that the water stays safe for a little while because there is still active chlorine in it. At the tap where you take the water, it is safe, it has chlorine in it, and then if you take it in a jerry can that is not super clean, your water will still be safe to drink because active chlorine remains.

WATA was based on chlorine, because of this super easy way to produce it; the technology is super robust, and easy to install in remote areas.

WT: Does your organization give this technology to people that are economically challenged? Can you tell me how that works, how do I get one if I am in this situation?

Manon Renfer: Usually we work with development corporations of countries, international organizations that purchase the WATA. It’s a social business, but its still a company. The WATA are not meant to be used for people in their homes, it’s supposed to be put in place in small supply network of water that is not connected to the main water supply chain.

WT: So, this is for people that aren’t connected to a water system currently, this is a system that they would ask the aid agency in the geography where they are, for this device. Could they get one, is there enough of them out there, how is it going so far?
Manon Renfer: It’s pretty good so far. The way we work is usually in three different areas. It can be in emergency situations when people have been displaced, the NGO’s/emergency organizations that want to avoid cholera outbreaks, put in small water supply networks for the refugee camps.

Another one is on the small-scale water supply networks that are moved, we mostly work in Africa. The third main application or market is in hospitals or health care centres. Where we work in rural Africa, is it quite hard to get some disinfectant supplies. The WATA technology produces the disinfectant on site, with only salt needed once it is installed, that is the main advantage of this technology.

WT: when I am in an African country or Haiti, I have never seen lights near a ladies’ bathroom unless there is power around, and power seems scarce in a lot of these situations, do they have to literally have a plug? Are there ways for people to get power if there isn’t any?
Manon Renfer: There are two different versions, four different sizes, considering the need you have, and also ways to provide some solar installation for power in remote areas.

WT: I see the Safe Water Phase Two program, can you tell me, what was that program, its called “A viable future for safe water businesses”?

Manon Renfer: Safe Water was a big project from the Swiss corporation, it was implemented in Asia mostly. I was not around at the time it was put in place, but I can tell, one of the goals was to see if there were ways to create a social business out of technologies producing safe water. So, there was one making filters in Cambodia, there is one in India that still provides safe water to communities and the way its done, using WATA in India, the water is disinfected on site, then it is delivered to people at their door. It is a service available to modest families.

WT: I was fascinated with the idea that Antenna Foundation does micro-banking. Can you explain how Antenna Foundation does micro-banking, and where are you doing that?

Manon Renfer: Micro banking was especially in India. I am not super familiar with it, I know it was made for women, to empower women. They must complete a training (program), have to come up with a plan what they do with the micro-credit, and then I think there is some kind of community way to deal with the credit, I can get you more information on this.

WT: Does Antenna take public donations? If a Canadian is looking at this interview with you, can they go to your website and donate for the WATA system or micro banking? How does that work?

Manon Renfer: We usually work with projects; we look for donors for specific projects. There are also more general donations, other donations can be taken for the general work. The thing is, Antenna Foundation does not provide grants, they usually fund their own projects. There are different kinds of foundations in Switzerland, many of them allow grants, that’s not the case with Antenna.

WT: Ok, we will stop the interview there, thank you, Manon.

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