Rolex Awards Celebrate Beth Koigi’s Clean Water Innovation and Inza Koné’s Primate Conservation Efforts

Environmental preservation takes centre stage in the Rolex Perpetual Planet Initiative, with two new Laureates announced from Africa

By Debbie Hathway

Beth Koigi, the Kenyan entrepreneur working to generate clean water from thin air, made it to TIME’s Next Generation Leaders List. This recognition comes shortly after she was announced as one of the Rolex Laureates for the brand’s Awards for Enterprise initiative.

Beth’s triumph in designing a highly effective water filtration system for Kenyan communities is a testament to her commitment to environmental conservation. Her work aligns perfectly with the goals of the Rolex Perpetual Planet Initiative, a global programme by Rolex to address environmental challenges through science and technology. The initiative aims to support individuals like Beth who are using innovative approaches to tackle pressing environmental issues.

Approximately 50 per cent of Kenya’s population lacks access to clean water, resulting in 10 000 deaths annually. Driven by this crisis, Beth collaborated with Canadian environmental scientist Anastasia Kaschenko and Oxford economist Clare Sewell. Together, they developed a solar-powered Atmospheric Water Generator (AWG) to extract water from the air, launching Majik Water in 2017. The AWG works by condensing water vapour in the air and then purifying it, providing a sustainable solution to the water scarcity issue.

AWGs can produce 20 to 500 litres of water daily, potentially scaling up to 100 000 litres. “If you have air, you can have drinking water by stacking together multiple devices,” says Beth.

Beyond providing drinking water, the Majik Water initiative has significantly impacted local communities. The AWGs can support agriculture, greenhouses, and aquaponic farms, promoting better nutrition and healthier communities. Moreover, Majik Water creates jobs by training local women and young people to operate water kiosks, thereby contributing to the economic development of these communities.

One can only imagine the delight among citizens who benefit from this clean water system, but that is not the reality. “Apparently, no, and this has been very surprising. It has been a learning journey for me because, for centuries, communities have had ways to deal with water scarcity. I first saw different ways of getting water from the South African movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. Actually, that movie is very accurate,” she says. “Many communities already depend on mist and fog harvesting during the drought season. So, it’s quite surprising for us that they already know. It’s just that our systems are a bit fancier and more effective in terms of capacity.”

While it takes only two days to complete the installation, reaching that point can take six months to a year. “A lot of work is talking to people, agreeing, coming up with the MOUs. These are long-term relationships we’re trying to create. So, every installation, for me, is very special and a huge win. It’s a huge source of motivation for me personally, and I feel very, very inspired this time.”

Championing Primate Protection in West Africa

At just eight years old, Inza Koné was given a baboon as a pet by his father, sparking a deep connection with wildlife. However, as the baboon grew, it became unmanageable and was euthanised, unable to return to the wild. This experience profoundly impacted Inza, shaping his view on wildlife and leading him to dedicate his life to studying and protecting primates, becoming Côte d’Ivoire’s first primatologist. His unwavering dedication and passion for his work are truly admirable.

Côte d’Ivoire, the most biodiverse country in West Africa, faces significant threats from deforestation. Inza focused on protecting the 11 000-hectare Tanoé-Ehy swampy forest, home to many endangered species, including four critically endangered primates: the Roloway monkey, white-naped mangabey, white-thighed colobus, and Miss Waldron’s red colobus. In 2006, he initiated a conservation programme involving local communities, transforming them from wildlife adversaries to protectors.

Two years later, Inza led a successful campaign against a proposal to convert 8,000 hectares of the forest into a palm oil plantation, with support from local chiefs and community leaders. In December 2021, the Ivorian government declared Tanoé-Ehy a community-managed natural reserve, granting the 11 villages ownership and stewardship of the forest.

Inza continues his work through his research institute, which plays a crucial role in his conservation efforts. His team is executing a four-year plan to plant and monitor trees in farmlands, aiming to improve agricultural systems. Each village will have a botanical garden to educate visitors and preserve local flora. Inza plans to document the forest’s unique wildlife and collect evidence of the four critically endangered monkeys, especially Miss Waldron’s red colobus, last seen in the 1970s. Proving their existence would strengthen the case for the forest’s continued protection.

He believes the Rolex Award symbolises personal achievement and is a testament to what can be achieved with dedication, innovation, and collaboration. “This kind of award should also be a catalyst for especially the younger generations to take steps, bold steps, into nature conservation, and from a personal point of view; when you win such an award, you become a kind of [role] model. You have to be creative, you have to be ambitious, and you have to have clear goals and milestones so that you can continue making a difference because the challenges are huge and will continue to be huge in our field.”

While congratulations will undoubtedly pour in from Inza’s peers and collaborators, he’s looking forward to taking the award to the communities. “This is a collective award. We would’ve not been there without them, without their dedication, without their collaboration; this should be a collective joy. We will share this award, and in the villages, the women will probably sing traditional songs and dance traditional dances. This is the way they’re used to celebrating big events. In my research institute, it’ll be maybe a cocktail, a modern celebration in the city.”

Inza was instrumental in establishing the African Primatological Society, a significant initiative founded by a small group of prominent African primatologists in Côte d’Ivoire in 2017. This initiative emerged from the realisation that African representation at international primatology forums was minimal, often with fewer than 10 African participants among thousands. The society aims to increase African engagement and leadership in primatology, offering a beacon of hope for the future of wildlife conservation in Africa.

Inza explains that to address these issues, the African Primatological Society aims to increase African engagement and leadership in primatology, which is crucial for effective primate conservation. By understanding the unique challenges and realities of African contexts, local experts can better communicate the importance of conservation to their communities. Since its inception, the society has enabled African primatologists to assume more prominent roles in various regions. The society’s Congresses have grown significantly too: the first drew 150 participants, while the second in Uganda hosted over 300, mostly young Africans. The next event in South Africa aims to attract 200 participants, fostering African primatology leadership through scientific exchange and capacity building.

The Congress takes place in Potchefstroom from September 25-28, 2024.

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