Water for the world

Keoni Mahelona wants to ‘provide water for the world’. “If water is the next commodity, I don’t want greedy companies owning it in the future,” he says.

Mahelona has experienced firsthand what water scarcity is like. “I’ve lived in the Far North and I know that families do run out of water, every summer for the most part, not just during droughts.”

So Mahelona’s started a social enterprise called WaterGenie, a water management system that will allow households using rainwater tanks to better manage their use. Using a smart meter, information about the water that is collected and used is sent to the ‘cloud’ via the internet. There are currently many ways for households to determine how much water is in a rainwater tank, but WaterGenie is different. WaterGenie predicts future water use and forecasts when a household can expect to collect more rain before sending this data back to the user. It also provides information on ways to change behaviour to save water and money. WaterGenie isn’t his only project. As well as working at Callaghan Innovation with the nano/micro fluidics team, he is developing new surfaces for collecting dew, based on studies of the Namib Desert beetle. Mahelona credits a social enterprise startup weekend for helping him realise that WaterGenie is the right first step, but he also says without The MacDiarmid Institute he wouldn’t be where he is now. The initial funding for the dew collection research came from a MacDiarmid Research Commercialisation Fellowship, financial support available for research students and postdoctoral fellows carrying out scoping, or in-depth, evaluation projects. Mahelona also received Bright Ideas funding from The MacDiarmid Institute to conduct field trials of dew collecting surfaces. To raise awareness of WaterGenie, Mahelona ran a PledgeMe campaign raising $6,330.  It also allowed him to connect with one pledger working on telemetry technology that could help connect WaterGenie data to the cloud. Another challenge faced by WaterGenie is user cost. Families struggling with water scarcity during the summer often do not have much money, so WaterGenie needs to operate cheaply, and the smart meter needs to be affordable. “It will have to be cheap, between $5 to $15 a month, just because that’s the perception at this point in time, with regards to how much people are willing to pay for water,” he says. Mahelona feels it is important to develop technologies that will solve problems and create opportunities on a local and global scale. “If we can provide technologies to people who can actually afford it in New Zealand and other affluent countries, then eventually this technology can trickle down to the people who need it the most, but who at this point in time can’t afford it.” Another part of his motivation is to ‘create high tech jobs for scientists and engineers, and for Kiwis’, because for him this means helping the world. “I get to help not only whänau in New Zealand but also whänau in the Pacific. I’m from Hawai’i originally, and again people think that there’s an infinite supply of water. But we’ll run out of water in Hawai’i because nobody collects rainwater. We all take our water from the ground, and it’s just a matter of time.” The next step for WaterGenie is to find families who are interested in being part of a pilot, and to put prototypes into the field. If you are interested in participating, contact genie@watergenie.org.