Safi Sana trialing IoT in Ghana factory for data-driven insights

03 November 2020 6 min. read

Water sanitation organisation Safi Sana has applied Internet of Things technology to its operations for the first time, with the help of Cegeka Consulting. Safi Sana’s Jos van der Ent and Cegeka’s Bart Cramer spoke to about the future implications of the project in Ghana.

Safi Sana is a Dutch non-profit that designs, constructs and operates waste-to-energy factories in developing countries. By collecting both faecal and organic waste from urban slums – including from toilets, food markets, industries and slaughterhouses – Safi Sana then uses it as input in its plants, treating it in a digester to create organic fertiliser, irrigation water and biogas which subsequently produces electricity.

The organisation helps develop waste treatment plants in areas where there is little to no infrastructure, and recently completed the establishment of its first plant in Ashaiman, Ghana. Amid the global travel restrictions of Covid-19, however, this has been no mean feat, and the enabling of remote working has become essential to the plant’s future – something enabled by means of a private LoRa network.

Safi Sana’s plant in Ghana

LoRa is a low-power wide-area network protocol, and LoRa devices and wireless radio frequency technology is a long range, low power wireless platform that has become the de facto technology for Internet of Things (IoT) networks worldwide. According to Jos van der Ent, a Research and Development Manager with Safi Sana, its deployment within the organisation has a great deal of exciting potential.

Van der Ent told “Since we started the concept, we found the need to spread data across the organisation. We experimented with mobile phones and a rather cumbersome spread sheet at first – but since we started using new tools such as data visualisation and automation tools, we have been able to spread information much more effectively.”

Using data, a host of benefits can be uncovered. “From an operational point of view, we can keep an eye on waste quantities, where it comes from, its pH balance and temperatures more easily. And since we have centralised data, we have also been able to use data for ‘soft’ purposes, such as demonstrating impact to our stakeholders.”


According to Van der Ent, being able to efficiently demonstrate “how many tonnes of faecal sludge” represents “how many people being served” can instantly show the scale and impact of the project, and help encourage further backing to expand the valuable social work it does. In order to achieve this, however, Safi Sana needed help, which came in the form of collaboration with Netherlands-based technology services firm Cegeka Consulting.

At the start of 2020, a chance encounter at an IoT conference saw the two firms’ paths cross. Consultant Bart Cramer struck up a conversation with Van der Ent, who had a few questions about what the firm did, as “we might actually need someone like you.” Safi Sana was looking to standardise it process, to do more data acquisition and processing in a standardised way, and help extend operations.

Cegeka supports organisations with their digital transformations by providing advice, implementing and managing the latest new technologies, making the firm an ideal fit for the project. The firm’s consulting arm is specialised in bridging the gap between technology and strategy and people.

Cramer stated, “The first phase that we are carrying out currently is a proof of concept where we attach devices to monitor the treatment process – something which we can then use to extract data from here in the Netherlands. Then Jos and his team can use that to improve the organisation’s processes.”

A truck delivering waste to Safi Sana’s plant

“For example, if too much faecal sludge is fed into the plant, it can disrupt chemical processes, or cause a glut of methane – which has to be burned off. Since there is so much effort going into generating the methane in the first place, this is not a great thing to happen, so this data can help streamline the process to make sure methane is not wasted.”

To monitor how regularly the plant produces too much methane, Cramer explains that one of Cegeka’s monitors is a heat sensor, which measures how regularly the ‘flare’ to burn off excess methane is being used. This caused Cegeka to have to augment its IoT offering to adapt to the environment, as “a heat sensor in the Ghanian sun cannot just be one you would use in Europe.”

Cramer continued that there are a number of other ways the consultancy has had to tailor its offering to the Safi Sana project.

Challenging but rewarding

“One of the biggest challenges we have faced is the local power supply, which is disruptive to say the least,” Cramer elaborated. “It might not always be on-off, but there are also brownouts [drops in the voltage of the local electricity grid]. At the same time, we are relying on the internet for our data – but there is not always coverage everywhere where Safi Sana works. What we need to do is use some kind of ‘edge computing,’ where if power or internet dips, the data waits to transfer once the power returns. We have had to think about how to optimise all our processes without being disrupted by power or internet issues then.”

If Safi Sana’s plants can overcome these obstacles, however, Van der Ent believes the best practices gleaned can be a major accelerant moving forward. In terms of the collaboration with Cegeka, he feels there is “a good click,” while the firm’s IoT solutions look likely to pay dividends soon.

“Once we have one sensor or one plant operational, scaling to another now should be simple enough. We can then test against different sources too, which can boost our potential for new locations as we can attract stakeholders. At the same time, our products include waste treatment, electricity sales and compost sales – but we can also sell the data we harvest as a product. With the local governments then, we can supply them the right data in the right way to the national governing bodies – monthly, weekly or daily.”

Also commenting on the collaboration meanwhile, Cramer concluded that while there have been problems along the way, he has found the engagement very rewarding.

“It was less straight forward than I thought. As an NGO running a company, all developments are paid for by external parties, adding to lead times before certain situations can be finished. If they were an ordinary big company, they could decide what they want to do more easily. That’s an extra satisfying thing for me. If I go to a birthday party and people ask me what I do, it’s this story that I share. It’s interesting from a technical point of view, but it is also a good feeling to work towards a purpose.”