In March 2013 I was introduced to Samuel Rajkumar by Amitangshu Acharya, who was then running Akvo’s South Asia hub. Sam and the rest of the team had come together to start an organisation, called Ternup, after they won the first prize in a hackathon in November 2011 for their water quality sensor-prototypes.

What led up to this was Sam asking several team members of the NGO Arghyam how the hackathon team could best contribute to better water quality in India. Ayan Biswas, who then worked with Arghyam and now works with Akvo, had suggested they create a low-cost device that can detect fluoride in water. Consuming too much fluoride can cause fluorosis, a dental and sometimes crippling skeletal ailment. The fluoride generally originates from ground water used for drinking water or to irrigate food crops. It is estimated that up to two hundred million people worldwide are under threat from fluorosis.

During 2013 Akvo supported Ternup with advice on how to set up and run an open source non-profit organisation. In January 2014, Akvo and the Ternup team decided to join forces to create a water quality monitoring system consisting of sensors, the Akvo software platform and our partner support services. Most of the Ternup team members joined Akvo and created the Akvo Caddisfly R&D laboratory in Bangalore. This work was supported early on by Aqua for All and later on also by SNV (PDF) and ICCO.

Achievements

Since then we have together created the Akvo Caddisfly water quality testing system. This is a combination of an Android phone and simple devices that can:
  • recognise and classify strip tests (available)
  • connect to external sensors for electric conductivity and temperature (available)
  • detect fluoride, residual chlorine and other chemicals using a colorimetric device (available, depending on region)
  • detect and analyse nutrient levels in soil samples using strip tests (in pilot testing).
If you are interested in any of the above tests, please contact your local Akvo hub office

Above: Caddisfly with strip tests, electric conductivity sensor prototype and colorimetric chemical pollution detection.

We were very happy when a scientific paper the team wrote about the fluoride test was accepted in the journal Science of The Total Environment. But we are particularly proud of how all the Caddisfly products are impressively easy to use. They integrate with the rest of the Akvo platform, including the data collection tool, Akvo Flow, and the data cleaning and visualisation tool, Akvo Lumen.

The Caddisfly team has also worked on a prototypes for detecting other contaminants, including arsenic, chromium and coliform bacteria in water, and the team expects to publish further papers on this soon.

Jalsahiya test Fluoride

Above: rural women learning to use Akvo Caddisfly. Jalsahiya tests for fluoride. Photo by Rajashi

Challenges

We knew when we joined Caddisfly and Akvo together that we would have a challenge ahead of us. Akvo is an organisation based on computer software and partner support services. Adding hardware, chemistry and biology research and product development to this was never going to be straightforward. Software and services development have a different rhythm as well as different investment criteria than hardware R&D. Another challenge we faced was that the Akvo software development team is far more spread out than the Caddisfly team is. This created issues around how we communicated between teams, which were harder to overcome than we expected. Finally we found that, over time, the overall direction of the local India Caddisfly team and the global Akvo team was striving in somewhat different directions.

The opportunity

The India Caddisfly team wants to concentrate on water challenges right on their own doorstep, where the water that comes from the tap in the laboratory contains fluoride levels just above the limits set by the Bureau of Indian Standard, and more directly help the many millions of people in their country directly affected by water contamination. At the Akvo team we will be focusing on our strengths as a connector, both between partners and between systems. We are going to be incorporating external sensors from many different players into the Akvo Caddisfly system, including those we have developed so far. This should allow us to offer more useful sensors in our joint solutions faster. 

Spinning off Foundation for Environmental Monitoring (FFEM)

Put together, these challenges indicated that we would be better off dividing the Akvo Caddisfly team into two separate entities. The Akvo Caddisfly software primarily remains within Akvo, and concentrates on connecting many different types of sensor solutions to the Akvo platform; and the new organisation we are spinning off, Foundation for Environmental Monitoring (FFEM), will concentrate on developing, manufacturing and selling environmental monitoring devices in India.

We are doing all this on the best of terms and will continue to be working closely together. FFEM will be supporting Akvo with software development of the Caddisfly application, as well as development and improvements of further tests. Akvo will be supporting FFEM in providing the Akvo platform and software to their partners. Akvo will continue to sell the FFEM sensors in India, and globally where logistics allow. Akvo is also supporting FFEM in gaining local investments in India – which are well progressed.

Sharing open source creations

One of the more complicated things that happen when dividing organisations is assigning intellectual property rights fairly, and in a way that fits the investors. Fortunately, at Akvo, we have been creating open source software and content from the very beginning. Akvo and FFEM can and will continue to collaborate, without having to go through complicated valuations of the work, as both organisations and others, can enjoy the benefits of the open source products we have created together.

The one thing that isn’t normally covered by an open source license is a brand. Akvo will continue to maintain the Caddisfly brand, but will license it to FFEM to be used as part of environmental monitoring sensors. Akvo will use the Caddisfly brand as ‘Akvo Caddisfly’ and FFEM as ‘FFEM Caddisfly’.

Going forward together

We are really excited for the FFEM team that they can now stand on their own legs and have products that many parties have shown strong interest for, both within and outside of India.

We look forward to Akvo and FFEM working together for the foreseeable future. Expect to hear more about our joint developments soon.

Thomas Bjelkeman is founder and chief technology officer at Akvo, based in Stockholm. You can follow him on Twitter @bjelkeman.