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Makerere University’s AirQo Project gets US$3 million from Google

By Nelson Mandela Muhoozi & Daniel Otto

 The Makerere University’s AirQo Project is set to receive a $3 million grant from as part of the search engine giant’s philanthropic commitment to  support innovations in Africa. The grant will enable AirQo to expand its work to another 10 cities in Africa, following its successful pilot in Kampala.

 Speaking during Google’s first-ever Google for Africa event held virtually on October 6, 2021, Ruth Porat, the Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Alphabet and Google, said that the new grant will see the AirQo project expand its pioneering work of using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and sensors to monitor air quality.

The grant is part of the competitive open call by Google to organizations around the world to submit their ideas on how they could use AI to help address societal challenges.  At Google, we believe that artificial intelligence can provide new ways of approaching problems and meaningfully improve people’s lives. That is why we are excited to support organizations that are using the power of AI to address social and environmental challenges.”

The AirQo air quality monitors use cloud-based AI models and software to quantify and inform action and policy interventions to reduce and better manage air pollution and its associated health risks. AirQo has deployed over 100 locally-built low-cost air quality monitoring devices across Kampala and other Ugandan cities.

The AirQo project aims to contribute to the improvement of urban ambient air quality by developing and deploying low-cost air quality monitoring networks.

Prof. Bainomugisha, of the Computer Science Department, Makerere University, and the Lead at the AirQo Project said  the new funding is a big milestone not only to the project but to the African continent, and it will ensure that more African cities have increased capacity and access to evidence to raise awareness and tackle air pollution.

 Bainomugisha said that AirQo’s digital platforms, which include AI-powered air quality portals and apps, are empowering communities with information about the quality of the air they breathe in.

 “We are excited to have received the new Google grant. The grant supports the expansion of AirQo’s work beyond Uganda and thereby advancing our mission to collect, analyse and model air quality data and work with partners to reduce air pollution and raise awareness of its effects in African cities. “Our vision is to ultimately achieve cleaner air in cities across the African continent.” 

He said the project will empower more African cities with information on the quality of air which will in turn help authorities to develop policies and take actions to combat air pollution in their respective countries and cities.

 Measuring air quality in Africa is still a challenge as most cities on the continent do not have the means  due to the high costs of required equipment. However, African-led initiatives such as AirQo provide a practical solution to measuring to the problem.

 According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution contributes to over 7 million premature deaths worldwide, annually.  In Uganda, ambient air quality levels in monitored urban centres are estimated to be over five times higher than the WHO recommended measures,  with over 30,000 people dying annually due to air pollution-related illnesses.

 In 2019, Uganda scored third on the African continent for recording the highest and most dangerously polluted air – only Ghana and DR Congo produced worse results.

 In global comparison, Uganda ranks among the top 25 of countries with the highest amount of Particulate Matter (PM), an airborne contaminant which negatively affects human health.

 The Air Quality Index scale runs from 0 to 300+ where 0 to 50 is considered good, 51 to 100 is moderate, 101 to 150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups of people, 151 to 200 unhealthy while 201 to 300+ is very unhealthy. In Kampala, the best air according to the AirQo recent report was registered around the Ministry of Health headquarters in Wandegeya with AQI 110 and City Hall in Kampala central with AQI 116.

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