Blue Tap water purifier tests start in Africa
Blue Tap, an independent not-for-profit with a social mission, is making progress in Africa after being inducted into Allia’s Future 20 incubator.
Allia's no-fee, no-equity programme offers bespoke business support to 20 ventures that solve global and local challenges in an innovative way – “20 start-ups that change the world,” says Future 20 programme manager Emma Mee.
The challenges are defined by the UN’s sustainable development goals, and include climate action, sanitation, food poverty, clean energy, responsible consumption, gender equality and well-being – and access to clean water, which is where Blue Tap comes in.
Blue Tap was founded in 2017 by CEO Francesca O’Hanlon, CTO Tom Stakes and COO Rebecca Donaldson. As always with start-ups, each founder had their own journey to the starting block. Francesca’s began with a masters in engineering for sustainable development in 2013. From there she went to Mexico, working as a consulting engineer for Isla Urbana, a rainwater-harvesting NGO based in Mexico City.
“While with Isla Urbana, I designed and constructed a flow-dependent chlorine injector to install on household-level rainwater-harvesting units,” she says. “Chlorine is widely used but the doses vary... Then I put that project aside and went to work with Medecin Sans Frontières for two years – the first year was in South Sudan, the second in the Central African Republic. They set up emergency hospitals, and my job was the water supply.
“In Africa there was the same problem as in Mexico with chlorine, and I started using the idea I’d been designing in Mexico, so when I finished with Medecin Sans Frontières in 2016, I moved to Cambridge.”
Francesca began a PhD at the university in resilience to climate change, specifically “the relationship between climate change and water access in Uganda”. When she got back to Cambridge, it was noticeable that 3D printing technology was beginning to make significant advances.
“3D printing was suddenly widely available and was now at the Department of Engineering,” she says. “There were lots of printers so I picked up the project again and started prototyping. It was a huge change in cost terms too – it cost £1 to print a version of the prototype and access to the technology meant that we could continue to improve the design.”
“In 2018 I worked in Uganda with local plumbers to install the system, which is what we’re still doing now – and also to raise awareness, so in the UK we’ve started selling water bottles made of bamboo and steel, and the sales help with the design and funding of the technology.”
There’s two bottle options: a £20 stainless steel option which has an authentic bamboo finish, or an all-steel version at £12.
“Those over their mid-20s like the bamboo veneer,” says Francesca. “Younger people prefer the £12 option. They’re on the website for sale, there’s quite a few that have been bought by the colleges and are on sale in the colleges.”
Meanwhile the main focus, the chlorine injector, isn’t a one-size-fits-all: the water has to be tested to be evaluated and adapted to each environment.
“Chlorine is seen as the most reliable purification system as it kills most of the bacteria,” Francesca says, “but results depend on the chlorine dosage so we train local plumbers to test the water first before setting the chlorine level.
“The unit needs refilling every two months with a bottle of chlorine. Some of our partners think that we should install the system in schools in Uganda – dysentery is a massive issue there, but there have been aversions to taking this path as previous campaigns for chlorine were not supported there much, so we have to know how to use the system safely there.
“We do have a partner institute in Uganda, with a cohort of 25 plumbers in a small town called Mbarara. I go back there every six months, the infrastructure is changing very fast. I’ve been going to Uganda as part of my PhD research also – what we want to understand is how people use the injector system and how it breaks.”
Funding initially involved “winning competitions and awards”, most recently with French philanthropic organisation Famae.
“We won a €20,000 award from Foundation Fame,” Francesca says. “They set a global challenge every year, and last year it was to improve water access. We’re now going for government grants – our goal is to be fully self-sufficient by 2020.”
Of her fellow founders, Tom finished his degree two years ago, had a stint at the World Health Organisation, and now works for a “consultancy firm spun out of McKinsey”, while Rebecca is an engineering student at the university. Blue Tap will carry on operating out of the Department of Engineering for the next 10 months, at which point they plan to move to Allia’s King’s Hedges Road site in line with the Future 20 programme.
“The key element is that our system is affordable,” concludes Francesca. “Blue Tap’s product is selling for the equivalent of £40, while others are on sale for £1,500 and they’re fiddly and difficult to use. We’re interested in getting rid of that difficult experience, which stems from annoying design. We’re applying for a patent.”
Once that comes through, the organisation will be able to tap into a whole new level of potential which will delight the UN and recipients of clean water in Africa and perhaps elsewhere.