University of Rwanda scientists investigate how digital tools could help families monitor indoor air pollution

Air pollution is a growing challenge for Africa, with the rapid population growth, industrial growth and consumption growth which have greatly contributed to increased levels of pollution.  While a lot of attention has been given to managing outdoor air pollution, indoor air pollution is proving to be the silent killer to many African homes where majority of the families still burn wood and use other biomass to cook and heat their homes. Children and pregnant women are significantly affected. While deaths from indoor air pollution in Africa have declined by about 15% since 1990, the overall number of deaths is still high at over 400,000 as at 2017 according to a report published by UNICEF in 2019. It is therefore imperative to create awareness of the dangers associated with the indoor air pollution exposure to African families.

The University of Rwanda’s Centre of Excellence on Internet of Things (IoT), Embedded Computing Systems with funding from the PASET Regional Scholarship’s competitive grants scheme, in close collaboration with a team from Makerere University is implementing a project to assess the levels of indoor air pollution in rural and urban communities in Rwanda. The project aims to develop an IoT monitoring device that will help families assess the levels of indoor air pollution in their homes and propose mechanisms to help families implement measures to reduce the high levels of indoor air pollution detected to the acceptable levels as guided by the World Health Organization. The tool will also provide general information to create awareness to the families on the causes, dangers, and mitigation measures for indoor air pollution.

This far, the project team has completed the design of the IoT indoor air pollution prototype and produced three of the 60 IoT devices to be developed through this initiative, the tool has been deployed to pilot sites and is able to collect necessary data in the homes and feed to a centralized monitoring system for data processing.

The project is also mentoring five PhD students from the university who have received hands on training on developing the IoT prototype in addition to participating in various short courses on the embedded systems which have exposed them to different technologies used in IoT prototyping. The students are also using new tools for data collection and data visualization. Besides mentoring PhD students, other partners involved in the project have also gained more skills such as backend development for centralized data storage systems. The project will also train the local community on the use of the Indoor IoT monitoring tool for increased uptake.

Students soldering the IoT prototyping device

The whole project concept was made clear through the prototype presentation. I got to learn more about the Arduino platform, Sensors (humidity sensor in particular), and programming behind the GSM module said Barbara Asingwire, RSIF Scholar, University of Rwanda

I have learned the basics of embedded systems and knowing the keywords that are used. I have seen that there are plenty of opportunities in that field and I expect to chase them as well. I have learned how I can connect humidity sensor and temperature sensor to Arduino, and we programmed them said Eric Nizeyimana, RSIF Scholar, University of Rwanda


RSIF students learning how to design their first IoT Prototype device(s)

The “Real Time Assessment of indoor air pollution in Rwanda rural and urban households” is one of 16 projects currently being funded through the RSIF Research Grants window. The grants are competitively awarded to faculty of RSIF African Host Universities (AHUs), to undertake research that has practical solutions in five priority thematic areas identified by the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET). The project is significantly contributing to Rwanda’s National Strategy Framework on Climate Change and Low Carbon Development. Through this strategy, the country has taken a big step towards achieving socio-economic development that is resilient to economic, social and environmental shocks related to population growth, and climate change as well as global visions to attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


The RSIF Scholarship salvaged my career dreams

Emmanuel Effah is Ghanaian by birth, male and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Computer Science at University Gaston Berger, Senegal. He has received a scholarship from PASET’s RSIF program, managed by icipe. Emmanuel’s Ph.D. research aims to build a robust and affordable Smart Agri-IoT (Agricultural-Internet-of-Things) technology from theoretical modelling to real-world implementation to address the challenges climate change and the skyrocketing global population have meted on food security in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Currently, he is advancing this research at the Wireless Innovation Laboratory (WiLab) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), USA. Mr. Effah obtained his MSc. Information Technology in 2013 from the Open University of Malaysia and BSc. In Electrical and Electronic Engineering in 2009 from the University of Mines and Technology (UMaT), Ghana. He is faculty at UMaT, Ghana with over 20 publications in reputable peer-reviewed journals and conferences, of which five emerged from his current ongoing Ph.D. research.

Mr. Emmanuel Effah presenting at the FICC2020 Conference in San Francisco, USA

What PASET-RSIF Scholarship meant to me

In line with Ghana’s declared national digitization agenda in 2016 which hinges on strengthening technical expertise in IoT-based or smart systems technology, UMaT opted to become a center of leadership in this area in the region. This called for a thorough IoT-based Ph.D. program that bridges the current technical gaps between the theoretical philosophies and practice of IoT-based smart technology in the context of SSA with relevant trained human power to support the running of the program. I was also looking to do a PhD in this area. Secondly, the PASET-RSIF scholarship came when all faculty members without Ph.Ds. had been given an ultimatum to obtain one or else lose their jobs. Consequently, this noble scholarship did not only salvage my career dreams but also contributes to Ghana’s vision of building world class IoT-based capacities to drive her smart/digitization agenda.

As a faculty member of UMaT, Ghana on study leave, my vision post-PhD is to return home and contribute my honest part in terms of teaching, research and services to my country, Africa and the global community in the area of building Smart Systems Technology for Africa’s digital transformation.

My Ph.D. experiences at UGB-Senegal and WPI-USA amidst COVID-19 Impacts

On 15th May 2018, I left Ghana (i.e., purely Anglophone country) to Senegal (i.e., purely Francophone country) to commence my doctoral studies without any knowledge of the French language. Upon arrival and the great reception at UGB, I was informed that my Ph.D. would be in English and purely by research under the supervision of Professor Ousmane Thiare, the newly appointed Vice Chancellor, who also did not speak English. By then, all the university students in Senegal had declared an indefinite nationwide strike for the entire semester, and so, considering my time limitations, I decided to teach myself both spoken and written French within the first six months since most of my colleagues could only understand written English.

Despite these initial challenges, my experienced Advisor, Prof. Thiare, helped me to develop a very concise plan with clear specific research objectives and timelines. Each of these objectives was expected to yield a publishable paper at the end, which helped me to work more independently. By implication, I am expected to publish seven papers in total from my doctoral studies which is very possible to achieve before the end of this year, since the remaining two papers are under review now. Also, I was assigned another experienced IPI advisor, Professor Alexander Wyglinski, at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in the USA. Thus, per my scholarship’s structure, I was scheduled to conduct my experiments at the Wireless Innovation Laboratory (WiLab), WPI in the USA from 17th November 2019 to 17th October 2021.

COVID-19 Impact on my Studies

Although I had a smooth take-off at WPI, my research plans and activities beyond 15th March 2020 were negatively impacted by the novel COVID-19 in the following ways: Firstly, WPI imposed a very strict lockdown and suspended my core research activities for over seven months! Besides, it was a time of fear, loneliness and anxiety because I had to stay indoors for several months without seeing my apartment mates.

However, since every misfortune can be a golden opportunity in disguise, I decided to use this time to conduct my simulation experiments remotely and write papers. Amazingly, two conference papers were produced, presented at IEEE-VTC2020 Fall, IEEE’s highest impact factor conference, in Canada and published in IEEE Access. Additionally, an in-depth tutorial paper on Agri-IoT was written and submitted to IEEE Communications Surveys & Tutorials which is still pending reviewers’ decisions.

Secondly, the Lab access protocols allowed me to use the Lab once in every month. From the turn of events afterwards, I decided to convert my bedroom and my dining into a Lab and cultivate an artificial/indoor cowpea farm to test my custom-built Agri-IoT testbed at home. I used my dining table as my Lab working bench.  Since my apartment mates have two active children who often tamper with the numerous micro-IoT components of my experimental setup illustrated in Figure 1 below, I have gone through myriad of challenging experiences to come this far.

Thrirdly, the imposed travel ban at WPI till now has affected vital research-related and personal travels. For instance, I attend the VTC2020 Fall conference virtually; my trip to Senegal for the field implementation and performance assessment of my custom-built robust and affordable Agri-IoT technology remains in limbo even though I am running out of internship time and funding. Consequently, I have decided to implement this testbed here during this summer and repeat same in Senegal when I am able to return in order to give an international significance to my Ph.D. research.

The disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that indeed “necessity is the mother of inventions” and there are embedded opportunities to every chaotic problem which can be exploited using wisdom and determination.