Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Moringa for Water Treatment

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This article was originally drafted by the Centre for Democracy and Development for the newsletter “West Africa Insight” as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Searchlight Process. For more Searchlight content on, please click here.

According to a USAID report, lack of clean water kills almost 4,500 children per day in Africa, women and girls walk an average of 6 miles daily to fetch water. Rapid urbanisation is exerting undue pressure on water resources and systems in the urban centres. According to a UNICEF report, over 70% of water resources in Nigeria are in the high-risk category, and fewer than 5% of tested water had sufficient chlorine levels. In the northern parts of Nigeria, the cholera epidemic has been devastating over the years, mostly due to failed government water provision infrastructure and lack of education that leads to unhygienic practices.

Water treatment plants in Nigeria face a series of challenges. These include: Inadequate laboratory facilities to monitor process performance, inadequate funding, inadequate skilled manpower, poor operational and maintenance schedules, adoption of inappropriate technology, and underdosing of chemicals, leading to poor quality water.

To tackle the problem of lack of access to potable and clean water, the Departments of Environmental and Chemical Engineering at the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria have for the last 4 years pioneered a research to improve water quality through the use of Moringa oleifera for water treatment. Popularly called zogale in the northern part of Nigeria, the plant is available throughout the country. The pilot water plant which has an installed capacity of 10,000 litres per day is funded by the Raw Material Research Development Council of Nigeria.

Leaves from a Moringa oleifera plant. 2008-Jan-27. From Wikimedia Commons, used under CC-BY-NC

Speaking with this writer in Zaria for West Africa Insight, Muhammad Jaju Abubakar, who is part of the project team at the Chemical Engineering Department of the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, advanced the reasons for the project. First, he pointed out the health benefits associated with the use of the Moringa plant in water treatment systems. “Most water treatment plants in Nigeria use organic and inorganic coagulants which include chemicals like aluminum sulphate, poly-aluminum chloride (PAC), ferric chloride, etc,” he said. “They also use alkalinity and PH correctants like calcium hydroxide and sodium carbonate. Disinfectants made from chlorine compounds are also generally used. These chemicals are known to have potential health and environmental risks.” The sludge produced is non-biodegradable and voluminous, leading to disposal problems.

Muhammad Jaju Abubakar advanced that the use of Moringa would help in two ways. First, it would help lower cost budgets of water treatment plants. Most chemicals are imported at very high costs, often leading to shortages or under dosing by operatives of the water treatment systems, with the consequent production of unsafe drinking water for the public. The use of Moringa would encourage the commercial production of the plant. There is therefore a huge potential for job creation, as farms would spring up all over the region as feed mills for water treatment systems. The Raw Materials Research Development Council of Nigeria has unveiled a plan to generate over 500 hundred billion naira (about US$3.3bn) in revenues and create one million jobs through different uses of the plant.

The pilot system at the Ahmadu Bello University uses high-level technology. At an installed capacity of 10,000 litres of water per day, the system is fully functional and supplying water to the university environment. During the commissioning of the scheme, the Minister of Science and Technology, Prof. Ita Bassey reiterated that the Moringa plant as a coagulant is highly effective in removing suspended particles from water. He mentioned the fact that while there is an abundance of water supply in the country, lack of access to clean and potable water plagues a majority of the populace. The Moringa technology if adopted would on a national scale had the potential of saving the country about 346 million naira (over US$2m) between 2011 and 2015 through the importation of alum for water purification alone. The quest to achieve the MDGs target in water provision, he said, may lie with this technology.

In his response, the Director General of the Raw Materials Research Development Council, Prof. Peter Onwalu, agreed that the plant would save the country huge sums of money expended on the importation of chemicals for water treatment. “It’s only natural that we start doing something to curtail and preserve the much needed foreign exchange earnings,” he added. Also speaking, the ABU Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha, thanked RMDRC for the fruitful collaboration leading to the development of the new system. Mustapha, represented by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academics), Prof. Ibrahim Adamu, urged the organisation to continue with its effort of promoting research and development efforts in institutions of higher learning.

Research and greater awareness may help resolve the many technical and economic issues that remain to be tackled with regard to the extraction and purification of the active components within the M.oleifera seed kernel. Even with these little challenges, the vision of access potable drinkable water may depend on the ability of people of West Africa to harness the potentials of Moringa for purifying water.

Searchlight Process

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Research and Records Unit has undertaken an innovative approach to addressing this challenge by generating applicable intelligence that emerges from a forward-looking, on-the-ground perspective throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It is known as the “Searchlight” function—a group of forward-looking, regionally-focused horizon scanning and trend monitoring grantees that conduct regular, ongoing scanning for novel ideas, research results, and "clues" to where the world is evolving.