Alumni Spotlight: Tracy Hawkins and Safe Drinking Water for Tanzania

Dec 19, 2016 | Atlanta, GA

In September 2015, the United Nations held a summit on sustainable development. At this convocation, world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes a set of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). The SDGs include putting an end to poverty, addressing climate change, generating affordable and clean energy for all, and — No. 6 on the list — clean water and sanitation.

Clean water and sanitation for the developing country of Tanzania are particularly on the mind of ISyE alumna Tracy Hawkins (BSIE 85). Hawkins is the face of SAFE Water Now (SWN), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization providing expertise, services, and resources to solve the problem of unsafe drinking water in Tanzania, all on a completely volunteer basis. This includes her role as the executive director for the organization, in which she handles the business development of SWN — everything from operations and communications to fundraising. “I wear a lot of hats,” she said.

The goals of SWN are to both raise awareness for the need for clean water and to raise funds for ceramic pot filters that can provide clean water for a Tanzanian family for up to five years at a total cost of $40. To accomplish this, Hawkins works alongside her partner, Mesiaki Yonas Kimirei (who prefers to go by “Kim”).

Kim runs SWN’s sister organization, Safe Water Ceramics of East Africa (SWCEA), from just outside Arusha, Tanzania’s second-largest city. SWCEA’s employees actually make the ceramic pot filters.

Hawkins described this pursuit of clean water for the people in East Africa as a deeply felt mission: “I got involved in this without really knowing exactly what I was getting into. I got really scared because the venture grew bigger than I anticipated, and it was more important than I realized.

“So I struggled with continuing to do this work or not, because it’s very complicated. But I just had to keep doing it. It’s a passion, it’s a calling, and because it’s so fundamental to all life, to all people, to children, to the most vulnerable. I feel like it overrides religion and politics and gender – you can’t segregate our society when it comes to water.”

The development of SWN and SWCEA has something of a winding history: Hawkins was visiting Tanzania in 2005, when she collaborated with local potters to develop handcrafted ceramic souvenirs to sell to tourists coming to the country. Hawkins was looking into fundraising possibilities for this venture when she came across the ceramic pot water filter promoted by Potters for Peace, another U.S.-based nonprofit that produces ceramic pot filters in Central America.

Remembering that she had to drink bottled water on her Tanzanian trip, Hawkins was struck with the idea that a similar endeavor could be started in that country. She took the idea to the group she was working with in Tanzania and the rest, as they say, was history: “My current partner, Kim, said ‘We have to do this.’ And so we did, and we’ve been doing it now for 10 years.”

On a family property near Arusha, close to the main road, SWCEA has built its ceramic factory. The factory produces both ceramic pot filters and traditional pots. Making and selling the pots has allowed the factory to be sustainable during the filter’s development.

According to Kim, there are several challenges to producing the filters, which are made with clay, sawdust, and colloidal silver. Potential obstacles include a minimal consumer market for the filters — most are purchased through donations; the difficulty of filter delivery to customers throughout East Africa; flooding, which has damaged production machines and materials; and an unreliable source of electricity, which can cause production to lag.

Additionally, slow production is a problem. Right now, 500 filters are produced each month, and that’s where Georgia Tech’s Engineering for Social Innovation Center (ESI) comes in. ESI matches students with real-world projects for corporations and nonprofit agencies. All projects aim to improve the lives of the underprivileged domestic population or people at the bottom of the pyramid in the developing world.

Three separate ESI teams are working to make SAFE Water Now’s process for creating the filters more efficient. One group is creating a test tube incubator that tests the water before and after it is filtered, by adding a bacterial agent and heating it to an exact temperature. A second group is building a drying tent for the filters that is made out of inexpensive, lightweight, readily available materials. To deal with the issue of inconsistent electricity, and to power the incubator and the drying tent, another team is developing a solar-powered generator. With these three innovations in place, which are all still in the prototyping phase, the outcome of these ESI projects will reduce bottlenecks in the process to produce filters at the current capacity of 500 units per month.

“This project was the biggest highlight of my college career. We all want to be able to help, but we don’t always know how. ESI made taking my skills and applying them to something meaningful an amazing, effortless, and natural process,” said Meriem Guehaiz (BSIE 16), member of the SAFE Water Now incubator team.

SWCEA has, fortunately, also found a unique solution to distributing the ceramic pot filters: via the safari circuit. Hawkins said, “A large safari company that works in Tanzania and other countries – Overseas Adventure Travel [OAT] – brings their tourists for a cultural safari to our factory. Afterward, the tourists journey to the most rural locations, where they are able to donate filters to rural people living without safe water. OAT tourists have the opportunity to actually participate in delivering safe water to the local people living on the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, or along the Great Rift Valley — a life-changing experience for everyone.”

In contrast to Kim’s list of very specific and immediate challenges, Hawkins described the challenges — which are two-fold — of their joint venture a little differently.

First, there’s an educational component to using the ceramic pot filters that must be bridged. Hawkins said this involves “helping [the users] understand that water is making them sick and what they can do to prevent getting sick. It means helping them achieve simple goals, such as handwashing and treating their water. Beyond that — once the people we’re serving feel better and see progress — we can talk about things like sanitation and girls’ menstrual needs. [But] water has to come first.”

Second, there’s a cultural component to figuring out how to scale up and enlarge SWN/SWCEA from a business perspective. Hawkins noted that the two organizations are working with a social enterprise incubator and accelerator called Anza that is helping her figure out how to overcome cultural challenges.

“For instance, we really need consumer micro-credit to go to scale,” she explained. “Think about going to Sears and buying a refrigerator, where it’s easy to get credit.” It’s not currently possible for people to buy the pot filters on a credit system like someone would be accustomed to in the U.S.

Further, Hawkins and Kim want the ceramic pot filter to become an aspirational product, something that appeals to the middle and upper classes in Tanzania, which will increase the filter’s desirability.

“So as you can see,” Hawkins added, “This is using every single bit of IE systems knowledge that I could possibly drum up. This whole project is a systems engineering project. It’s different from a systems engineering project that you would find in an industrialized country.

“I would say the biggest difference is the need for flexibility — to not plan too far ahead. As a matter of fact, the risks are so high working in this environment, you have to be able to flow with whatever’s going on.”

Pinar Keskinocak, ISyE’s William W. George Chair and Co-founder and Co-director of the Center for Health & Humanitarian Systems at Georgia Tech, is on SWN’s advisory board. She has helped Hawkins with SWN’s development and confirmed the benefits of Hawkins’ IE background: “Tracy’s career, first in the private sector, then in the nonprofit sector, is an excellent example of how versatile and impactful industrial engineers can be. Through social entrepreneurship, she established SWN, offering a local and sustainable solution for clean water to many families in Tanzania, as well as creating job opportunities for the people and improving their livelihood.”

The time and attention Hawkins and Kim have devoted to SWN and SWCEA paid off at the 2015 Energy Globe Awards, given out for the best sustainability projects, when SWCEA won first place in the Water category. Kim and his wife attended the awards ceremony, held in Tehran, Iran.

When asked if she has an anecdote that exemplifies for her SWN/SWCEA’s work, Hawkins said she has two.

The first concerns her partner Kim, who comes from an educated family that knew to boil their water. However, Kim said that until he was able to drink filtered water, he always had a stomachache. Now he never has a stomachache, and he never has to go to the doctor.

The second example is a mother who received a filter but told SWN/SWCEA that she used to filter her water through her dirty clothes to get rid of any sand or dirt in the water. Now she doesn’t have to. “So this is what we’re dealing with here,” Hawkins said. “She has a real solution for treating her family’s water.”

Related Media

Click on image(s) to view larger version(s)

  • Making a Ceramic Filter at SWCEA

  • Stamping a Ceramic Filter with SWCEA's Identifying Mark

  • ISyE Alumna Tracy Hawkins of SWN Presents Kim with a New Computer

For More Information Contact

Shelley Wunder-Smith

Stewart School of Industrial & Systems Engineering

404.385.4745