Anastasia Kaschenko is the chief technical officer and co-founder of Majik Water, a start-up currently creating new sources of affordable, clean drinking water for communities in Kenya and South Africa. Making use of technology that harvests moisture from the air, the company is aiding individuals and communities, but they’re also partnering with some of the world’s largest business to lessen industrial water consumption in areas most affected by shortages. TRENT Magazine/The Trent Voices podcast caught up with Ms. Kaschenko in Australia. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Trent Magazine (TM): Tell us a bit about issues surrounding access to drinking water in Kenya.
Anastasia Kaschenko (AK): Africa, as a continent, is really diverse. Kenya, specifically, has a geography where much of it is quite dry. Those arid regions present tricky situations when there’s also a drought. Not only is there little accessible water—unlike what we’re used to in Canada, with our lakes or rivers—but there’s also no precipitation.
Drought conditions occurred about a year ago in Nairobi, which is the epicentre of Kenya. It’s the city with the highest population, the capital. People were living without running water, which caused a multitude of issues. But it’s a city, and you can get around some issues by purchasing water, if you have the money to do so.
When you start moving out of Nairobi, into the countryside, into the rural areas of Kenya where about half of the country lives, it becomes trickier. What ends up happening is that disease rates that are caused by water contamination skyrocket. And when people are more likely to get sick, that results in more school hours missed for kids, more work hours missed for adults, and, overall, just a massive hit across every part of a person’s life.
As for numbers, 48% of Kenyans, on average, live with water scarcity—meaning that there’s not a reliable source of clean drinking water that comes out of their tap, or out of a borehole near their house. And it doesn’t really matter if you are high-income or low-income, whether you live in the city or the country, it’s going to affect you.
I’ll give you a personal example of this. My first time to Kenya, a couple of months after we had founded Majik Water, I contracted cholera, which is a really common water-borne illness. I was able to get treatment, no problem. But I had the privileged position of being a traveler and having access to the healthcare in the city. If that same situation happens to someone in a rural community, it becomes very quickly a life-and-death situation.
TM: Water quality and quantity issues are rapidly spreading across the planet. We have places in Canada where there’s still no access to potable water—on reserves, for instance—and we’re one of the most water abundant nations on the planet. What’s your assessment of the global situation?
AK: It’s good that you brought it back to North America, because we founded Majik Water in California. For one of the most affluent states in the US, just south of our border in Canada, Californians are making headlines because of their water issues. They’re needing to ration their water, as their usual sources—dammed sources of water—dry up because of overuse and increasing climate change-induced weather conditions. Less rain means more drought, while periods of rain that are really intense can’t get soaked up to recharge ground aquifers. This is happening around the world, and certain areas are being affected at the extreme end of that spectrum. So California’s a great example close to home.
Majik Water does work in Capetown. And their issues have probably graced headlines in Peterborough. Capetown faces Day Zero, where they will potentially run out of water.
On an even bigger scale, when we look at the global water scarcity issue, the UN estimates that, by 2025, almost two billion people will be living in water scarcity. That’s six years away. When we started doing this, that was eight years away. It’s something that we need to keep fresh in our minds. We can’t lose sight of the global reality of how we use our water, how many more people are being brought into this world, and how those resources are depleting while our populations are increasing.
Unfortunately, a lot of the 1.8 billion that are purported to be affected by water scarcity will be spread across geographies that don’t have that water infrastructure that we’re used to in Canada; or, they will have governments that won’t necessarily have the resources to respond. And there aren’t easy fixes. When Capetown had its Day Zero looming last year, the solution wasn’t the building of new infrastructure, digging up huge holes, putting in new pipes, putting in de-salination plants. It was reducing water use. Technology is amazing, and that’s definitely the arena that we operate in, but it’s not the easy answer. Reduction will always the number one most powerful solution. And we definitely want to put that out there as well.
TM: Alongside the reduction and the education, we do have technology that can help at the individual level. And, at Majik Water, you are aiming to introduce tech that makes accessing water a lot easier. Tell us about what you’ve been introducing.
AK: In a sentence, we are harvesting drinking water from air. Now, what the heck does that mean? To start with, you need to know that there is six times more water in the atmosphere than in all of the rivers in the world combined. So it is a massive, untapped source of water that we are now just, collectively, learning how to harness. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.
What you’ll find if you start looking into atmospheric water generation, or air-to-water, is that about 90% of this very early emerging industry uses what’s called condensation. Imagine a cold glass of water on a hot day, and the beads of water around the glass that are starting to form. That’s basically condensation in a nutshell. Now if you hit hot humid air against a cool surface, the water condenses, and you can collect it. But doing that at high volumes requires a lot of energy. And using a lot of energy results in a very high cost. Which means that this type of technology really isn’t accessible to many of the people living in regions without water right now.
So we looked at desiccants as an alternative. If you’ve ever bought a pair of new sneakers, you’ve probably found a little packet of silica gel in there, with clear little balls. Now, what those little silica gel balls are doing is keeping your shoes dry by absorbing the humidity in the air. That same principle holds true when you have a larger quantity of desiccants, such as silica—it absorbs moisture from the atmosphere. And when you heat it, it will release that moisture as water vapour. You can then collect that, just as you would condensation. And, there you go! You’ve produced water.
TM: What does the operating machine look like? What would this look like if it was in a village in Kenya?
AK: I guess I can speak best from our own prototyping. One of our prototypes looked like a big barbecue with a solar-thermal component on top, which we were testing in order to cut the energy cost by going from heat to heat, instead of heat to electricity to heat, if that makes sense. We had a parabolic solar concentrator, which looks like a trough, that was collecting the solar energy, concentrating it, and then heating up trays of silica gel that were changed manually. That design isn’t necessarily feasible, or most sensible for users. But they can come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Our latest prototype looks like a slanted glass box, facing the sun. And you actually see the water being generated and clinging to the glass and running down. It’s something that can be installed in the back of someone’s house or out in a field. It has a greater ease of use.
But, again, it’s an evolving design. We’ve done everything from portable backpacks to systems that can be incorporated into agriculture.
TM: Right now, you’ve moved into a phase where you are busier rolling out the tech than building the tech. Tell us a bit about how Majik Water is trying to get this technology into as many hands as possible.
AK: Right now, we’re working with a couple of major corporate clients. In the last year we’ve developed relationships that have resulted in some really exciting deployments.
One of our partners is Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewery. In Canada they would be known for making Corona or Budweiser, which are great products. But the reality is that the ratio of water needed to make one beer is massive. I don’t know the exact number, but we can safely say it takes six litres of water to make one litre of beer.
As a company that is becoming more conscious of its social license and its impact on the resources it requires (i.e., water), Anheuser-Busch InBev has been pouring lots of resources, including investment, into solutions for the communities it operates in (such as Capetown, or other African cities). In order to offset that water footprint, they have partnered with us to deploy solutions in those communities for drinking water. For us, that means a number of partnerships in our technical ecosystem, in places ranging from Denmark to, locally, Nairobi. We also have partnerships in our business development ecosystem, including one in Capetown, which we work with to develop aspects of the technology; and also to deploy together. We are currently working with a partner in Capetown, deploying atmospheric water generators (air-to-water machines) that produce upwards of a thousand litres of water per day. And that’s underway right now in South Africa.
TM: When you’ve got something that is generating a thousand litres per day, is that meant to be shared by a neighbourhood? By a village? How does that work?
AK: There’s a number of ways to do it, and that’s really a major part of our role: not just sorting out the technology, but also the deployment models. It really depends on where you are.
Beaufort West in South Africa, for instance—a city the size of Lakefield—have run out of water completely. That means they’ve run through their dam, as the backup resource, and there’s been a drought, so there is no incoming water. They’re considering plugging in a farm of air-to-water devices to create a micro-utility to serve their municipality. That’s one example of a deployment model. What we’re going to do with that community isn’t determined yet. As soon as it’s released I’ll be sure to let you know. But it could be a model similar to that. It could be smaller-scale: a kiosk where people currently buy water, but will eventually go and fill their own jerry cans or canteens with atmospheric water (which is the World Health Organization standard of purity). There are a number of ways to fit into the existing behaviour of the community and make it easy.
TM: Majik Water has an exciting new partnership. Tell me about that.
AK: This is a really cool deployment. We were approached by a huge tech company facing a very interesting water issue. Now, you and I are talking via Skype right now, using the Internet. The reason we can do that is because there are datacentres all over the world. These are very hungry parts of industry; a lot of energy is needed to keep servers cool in order to keep the Internet running and our radio waves working. Those same datacentres require a lot of water in that cooling process. And when there’s a drought, it’s very hard to make the case for cooling a datacentre instead of providing drinking water. So, this company was urgently looking for a solution that would take them off the water grid. That’s what we’re helping to supply.
We’re deploying what we believe to be the first off-grid water solution in the world for a network of datacentres. I think this is really important. And although it’s kind of tangential to our core focus, which is drinking water, we have to understand is that it’s all connected. When there’s a drought, if your datacentres stop working, that means hospitals lose connectivity, that means police stations lose connectivity, and (particularly in a large city such as Capetown) you don’t want any of those things happening.
TM: Trent’s a very recent memory for you. Tell me how your Trent experience is impacting the work you do now.
AK: I’m really happy you asked this question, because none of this would have happened without Trent. Professor Stephen Hill was always making sure that we were taking opportunities; he pushed us to always look beyond the scope of Trent. He nominated me for the Canadian Youth Environmental Leadership Scholarship and I was one of two Canadians to receive it, which was completely humbling for me. While receiving the award at the Globe Conference in Vancouver, I met a really amazing entrepreneur, Apour Singha. I ended up working with him and joining his team, which led to me moving to California, living at NASA and taking part in the the Singularity Youth program. That’s where I met Beth and Clare, the foundation of Majik Water. And it all started from an award I was nominated for at Trent. Those connections would never have been made otherwise.
It’s an example of seeing pieces that don’t make sense at the time falling together in very interesting ways, which happen if you keep your eyes open and see experiences as opportunities. At the time, of course, I could never have known I would end up where I am. But that’s the benefit of having mentors in your life—ones that have a bigger vision and can guide you towards things that are really good for you and your life. Trent has played an immense role in that.
TM: What advice do you have for students and young alumni?
AK: One of the biggest challenges and lessons has been what I call my “scope of control.” In short: “Cross that bridge when you get there.”
For many people, when they graduate university, or are in their 20s, there is information overload. It comes via social media or the internet. The amount of choices that seem to be out there is almost crippling. And so people can experience a sort of stand-still, or feel like they’re paralyzed because there’s this paradox of choice. They wonder what they could possibly do, or what impact they could possibly have.
For me, I think it is important to look to the immediate. Draw a circle around you and your community, and look at what you can do there—what you can do in your personal life at that stage or time. Because, while its good to dream big, it’s also important to focus on immediate next steps. I think this helps block out anxiety, or thoughts that overwhelm. That’s what I mean when I say, “cross that bridge when you get there.” Yes, things can happen in the future, but that’s over there. We also need to focus on what we’re doing in the present. Incremental steps.
That’s how we’ve gotten to we are with Majik Water. It’s been incredibly overwhelming—with the press, with expectations, with working with massive corporations. But you can’t let yourself go too far. You won’t be able to deliver well on what it is you’re doing right now if you keep getting distracted and stressed out by possibilities of the future, or things that are beyond your control. So, for me, it’s about starting small and doing that really well, and then keeping your eyes on the immediate next step. So cross those bridges when you get there. You don’t need to worry about things that haven’t happened yet. I don’t really know if that’s considered advice, but if I’m being honest, that is my kind of personal realization.
TM: It must be exciting to cross bridges with people you admire. Tell me a bit about your team, and how it feels to be working with these particular people, making change.
AK: This is my favourite question of the day, because our team is everything. I have two cofounders: Beth Koigi, who is Kenyan, and Clare Sewell, who is British. We met in California, which is the cause for the question we get most frequently asked: “How the heck did you guys come together from three continents?” We met there, in Silicon Valley, and they are incredible. I’ve learned more from them than any other part of this experience.
They are both my seniors in age and also in experience. Beth ran her own water filtration company for five years in Kenya, very successfully. She has deep knowledge and expertise when it comes to Kenya. Clare worked in London for 10 years in management consulting and strategy. She went to Oxford for finance, so she has that strong backbone of understanding for how a business needs to run in order to work. She keeps us in line when we may want to do things that are infeasible or would take us off track.
We have a really good synergy and balance. Some of the biggest challenges have been personal ones in terms of coming together so quickly. We were strangers in June and we had a company by September. So the reality of that is that real life happens on the side. But the most beautiful and amazing things have happened. We can hardly believe it. But it has been a result exclusively of three women coming together and working together. We have a wider team as well, and they’re also an amazing support. And, of course, our partners in South Africa are our backbone. For us, team is everything.