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).


Benefits to RSIF Contributing Governments

RSIF is unique in being an African government-led science fund for Africa. The program, which was initiated in 2015 has supported over 180 PhD students and provided 14 research and innovation grants through African ‘Host’ Universities. As contributors to RSIF, African governments benefit in more ways than through the cost-effective training of its doctoral students.

Countries also benefit from efficient centralized administration of the scholarship and other grants, support for the RSIF scholars to ensure that they complete on time, as well as regular monitoring reports on the progress of their students. The pooling of funds, the highly competitive selection of host universities, international partners and students, and the efficient administration of the fund enhances the value and increases the benefits.

African countries’ participation in RSIF benefits their entire higher education, science and innovation ecosystem. All RSIF scholars will undergo high quality doctoral training in competitively selected SSA universities partnered with international universities, with study abroad for part of the time, at a fraction of the cost of sending students abroad for a full time PhD.  On successful completion of the PhD, the students will be eligible for research and innovation grants.

Highly Skilled Human Capital as a Driver for the African Union Agenda 2063 and National Development Plans

The rationale for RSIF is that Africa requires world class scientists in priority thematic disciplines that are relevant to national economic growth across sub-Saharan Africa. Some of these areas include orphaned research areas such as mining, minerals and materials science, energy and information and communication technology among others. This African led program aims to support the training of African innovators and leaders, with focus on women and faculty, to be able to strengthen the capacity of universities to train at the doctoral level and undertake innovative and impactful research for the future needs of the continent and the participating countries.

Read more in RSIF Country Reports 2021 through the RSIF Repository

RSIF is owned and led by African governments through PASET and icipe is the RSIF Regional Coordination Unit.

RSIF is designed for sustainability and has two components: (i) the General Fund and (ii) the Permanent or Endowment Fund, with proceeds to capitalize the general fund.  Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal have made or are at the final stages of making contributions to PASET RSIF, in addition to the Government of Korea, the ACP Innovation Fund of the European Union and the World Bank, bringing funds to US$ 51.7 million.

Country contributions have been earmarked to doctoral scholarships, and in some cases to support research and innovation projects, aligned with national needs. The potential of African countries’ innovative expansion due to investment in RSIF is multiplied when leveraged by the funds through matching support from various donors, including the Government of Korea, international partner institutions and others.

More importantly, RSIF aims to create a sustainable vehicle for supporting science, technology and innovation capacity building through a permanent fund that is being established by the governments. Many African governments are interested to be part of this.

Find out more

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.



Technology and education are the foundation to bettering life in society

According to the Gender strategy of the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF), the program has set an ambitious target for women’s representation among its PhD scholars (50%) based on a commitment to gender and social inclusion and excellence in Aplied Sciences Engineering and Technology (ASET) fields to support Africa’s socio-economic transformation. Enhancing gender inclusiveness in the sciences will require significant investment and deliberate efforts at various levels by various actors, including by universities, governments, and other institutions. However, the important payoffs from this investment justify the costs: removing existing barriers to women’s entry and advancement in ASET fields will increase substantially the number of intelligent, talented people making important scientific innovations. To date, since the award of the first scholarships in 2018, RSIF has awarded a total of 184 PhD scholarships, 71 of these going to female scholars, representing 39 percent of the total scholarships. In an interview with RSIF Manager Dr Moses Osiru, he shares about Fund’s tremendous growth over the past two years.

During the 12th RSIF Monthly Webinar Series held on 9th June 2021, RSIF hosted Ms. Aicha Evans, CEO of ZOOX an American autonomous vehicle technology Company which is head quartered in California, to a chat on “Women Leading in Science and Emerging Technologies”. icipe’s scientist and postdoctoral Fellow  Dr Fathiya M. Khamis moderated the conversation, which was attended by RSIF PhD scholars, RSIF host Universities, International partners, World Bank group representatives including Diariétou Gaye the Vice President and World Bank Group Corporate Secretary and ZOOX innovators. The vote of thanks to Ms. Aicha was given by Cohort one, RSIF PhD Scholar, Fatoumata Thiam from Senegal who is undertaking valuable research in designing self-optimized irrigation in the Sahel area based on the Internet of Things at the University of Gaston Berger (UGB).

In the chat below, Ms. Aicha answers some of the fundamental questions on why Science and emerging technologies should matter to everyone but especially to women.

Q. Why should Science and emerging ttechnologies matter to Women?

A. Oh, you know, Women are kind of the core of society, we make a lot of things possible, we also have the population. I think that some of the experiences that happen though growing up as women and expectations that are set on us, actually are very very conducive to technology. I do not believe in technology for the sake of geeking out, I believe in technology for the sake of really helping the world. That is what technology has done for thousands of years and will continue to do, and I think that women can bring the aspect of solving problems for society and advancing society as opposed to just geeking out when it comes to technology. The other thing is, I truly believe that we experience a lot of things at a young age from a societal standpoint, that if we apply technology to that, everybody meaning, men, women, however you identify yourself, will all benefit and this is something I am passionate about and committed to.

Q. What inspired you to get into science, engineering career path?

A. Well, very early on in my career, I could see the difference of when you have a lot of technology verses when you don’t have a lot of technology. Whether it is through telecommunication, when I was bouncing between Paris and Dakar, and just the ability to remain in touch with my friends. I know everybody has smart phones right now, that’s not the way it was back then. Back then there was a little box with a handset and rotary phone. It was super expensive. And so, in terms of hacking my basic phones to be able to stay in contact with people, it wasn’t hacking so I could be known as a hacker, it was really in service of staying in touch with my friends.

Second of all, when I looked at education, when I looked at just life in Darker, education is really part of the core of the society in Senegal. But still I could see like living in France and seeing what technology was making possible. I was very lucky and fortunate at a young age to be in a situation where I could travel and see a lot of the world, and you could see that basically Technology and education are the foundation to bettering life in society no matter where you are. And it doesn’t have to be the same kind of education. For example, e-commerce being born or spearheaded in Kenya was not surprising. I love the creativity of saying no, we are not going to replicate the backing infrastructure as it is known in the rest of the world, we are going to leapfrog and figure out another way to distribute money inside of the country and so e-commerce and the technology around that was born.

When it comes to technology there are usually two phases; there is an inflection phases where a wave is being born. Think about computers, telecommunication, cellular technology, the smart phone, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) or exploit phases where the inflection point has already happened, and you are just basically milking the situation and are creating derivatives at iterating. You are all getting educated at a time of an inflection point. What is happening through computers, AI, robotics? These are technological inflection points that are going to affect every aspect of life, from transportation, agriculture, medicine, banking like what is happening to crypto for example and you all get to participate in that. Pick your field and make the world better. I do not know what could be more exciting. And as women, you have an advantage, you see societal things that others don’t, and you have the opportunity to ride this, make the way, do things that are unimaginable today, take advantage of it.

Q. Do you think STEM fields are at a disadvantage because of the limited involvement of women?

A. We should turn it from a challenge to an opportunity. By the way, it starts very early on when you just watch kids in elementary school. We need to demystify STEM. We really do. It is almost like by making it so special, we are already telling young girls, oh it is not for you or it is going to be difficult and so on. We need to look at how we are teaching STEM, and early on sort of help young girls see that this is not about being the special one or the geeky one or ‘you are like the boys’. This is a tool or and an opportunity to basically solve the problem whichever one you want to solve. And to grow up and make a good living, because independence has never been a bad thing. I think that there are a lot of things we do very unconsciously in language, how we talk about it, how we even reward young girls who are doing well, and to me the demystification and democratisation of STEM is absolutely critical. The world bank and all these organisations should look at it from that standpoint and encourage the numbers. Once you go through that and see what is possible, you don’t have to convince people anymore because they see the value and human beings are driven by value.  There is a shortage, we make it too difficult and too special today and we need to change our mindset including how we talk about, how make it available, how we present it. I would live the first experience of a young girl with math to be around solving problem as  opposed to learn the methodology, learn this equation, the stress of your multiplication tables. Let us start with what becomes possible, and then from there, the kids will say well, STEM is making that possible and then I think we will increase the numbers dramatically.

Around the world, let us apply STEM to the local problems and the local opportunities. Let us use local event, problems, things that people can relate to and then STEM attaches to the emotion of the person, and I think great things will happen.

Q. If you were to sum up, based on your career and experiences, what two messages would you give that have been instrument to you as a successful science leader.

A. I would use three if I may.

First of all, Demystify, you are the boss of you, demystify! don’t let anybody define things for you. You define things, you define people, you happened to things.

Second of all, be resilient. Look, one days maybe I will write a book or something, I think we tend to focus on the destination once we have already arrived, and we don’t look at the Journey and the ups and downs. I wasn’t born with the God given right to achieve what I have achieved, and by the way, I have a lot more that I want to achieve. Be resilient and understand that it is a Journey. Successes are supposed be celebrated, failures are supposed to be acknowledged, understood and learning applied and then we move on to the next things. And by the way, if you are not failing, you are not doing anything meaningful, you are not finding root.

Last but not least, have some fun, enjoy the journey. We are so serious about things, I promise you, you all have long lives ahead of you, by and large, when you look at the normal distribution of the curve. You will have ups and downs and joys and failures. And by the way if you don’t have failures, you also cannot enjoy the successes.

Q. The leaky pipe for women starts right from lower levels of education and through to higher education, I think especially in Africa thereby reducing the numbers in science significantly, what do you think are the key differences, if any, for women perusing science careers in the global South Vis-a vis the global North

A. The global north is a little bit ahead but let us not exaggerate it, it’s not like they are doing super well. Every time I look at “diversity and inclusion” we seem to be stuck at 20-25% women in the North and so it is not like they are doing awesome. Now, we should take some learnings from that and we should accelerate. When it comes to Women or Girls and STEM, we should focus on the person, there is no question about it, but we should also focus on the value system and society. I think that having people, teachers, educated family members, explain in a positive non-arrogant way, to the units of family and the units of society how beneficial it will be for society at large, for girls and Women to be in STEM, is really important. Because you do need a support system. I have had very tough patches in my career or actually even as a student, as a teenage and then as a young adult, that if I didn’t have a support system that made it okay and that sponsored me that was there for me, I don’t think I wouldn’t have made it. So that expression that ‘it takes a village………’. I think we are focusing a lot on the individual and not on the village. We need to focus more on the village, such that the village has a vested interest in the individuals staying in STEM.

For more information and the engagement with Ms. Aicha, Please Listen to the webinar recording through this access Link and Passcode: Z00XRS1FRec*