37 water researchers and professionals from 10 African countries took part in the workshop

Professor David Werner

Hub researchers from Newcastle University in the UK, Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia (NUMed), and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Ethiopia, collaborated with colleagues from Ardhi University in Tanzania and the Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA) to deliver a Pan-African workshop on molecular microbiology.

Based at the brand new AAWSA wastewater laboratory at the Kality sewage treatment plant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the team used the Hub’s innovative ‘Lab in a suitcase’, a portable molecular microbiology laboratory, to train 37 water researchers and professionals from 10 African countries, including Tanzania, Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon, Zambia, Uganda, and Malawi. During the weeklong workshop, trainees gained hands-on experience in analysing river water and wastewater samples via plate counting, qPCR, and 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing methods with the affordable and portable tools of the Hub’s suitcase laboratory.

For the practical workshop, AAWSA employees collected water samples from the Little Akaki River, both upstream and downstream of Addis Ababa, and from the inlet and outlet of the capital’s largest and most modern sewage treatment works at Kality. Participants then tested the samples, and were able to establish that downstream of Addis Ababa the Little Akaki River contained concentrations of Faecal Coliforms and Streptococci bacteria that were 4,000-7,000 times higher than upstream of Ethiopia’s capital.

Similarly, genetic markers for total bacteria (16S rRNA) and human host associated Bacteroides (HF183) were found to be elevated by 75 and 9,000 times respectively downstream of Addis Ababa, compared to the river upstream of the city. In fact, the concentrations of faecal bacteria observed in the river downstream of the capital were very similar to the levels observed in untreated sewage from the inlet of the Kality sewage treatment works. Notably, the sewage treatment plant effluent was found to have significantly better water quality than the Little Akaki River downstream of Addis Ababa. From the sequencing results, a high prevalence of (Ali)arcobacter bacteria was observed in the wastewater and river downstream samples. (Ali)arcobacter bacteria represent a still poorly understood waterborne hazard, as several species of (Ali)arcobacter bacteria can cause watery diarrhoea.

These results revealed that the Little Akaki river becomes heavily polluted with untreated sewage while it flows through Addis Ababa. They also showed that further expansion of wastewater collection in the city for treatment in sewage treatment works, like those at Kality, could make an enormous difference to the river and riverine communities, since Kality sewage treatment plant effluent showed better water quality than the Little Akaki River downstream of the city.

Through this hands-on practice, workshop participants had an opportunity to become familiar with the latest water testing methods whilst also learning about the importance of environmental monitoring, and wastewater collection and treatment. Participants also communicated insights and findings from their own work, shared tips on how to purchase consumables for research in Africa, formed friendships, and set up a WhatsApp group for future knowledge exchange. The seeds have thus been planted for many Pan-African collaborations that will flower in the future. Indeed, bunches of roses were already distributed during the workshop to celebrate International Women’s Day and everyone who was in attendance.

Dr George Mangse, Lecturer at Nile University of Nigeria, commented on the training: “The workshop was an opportunity for me to refresh some molecular biology techniques and most importantly, to learn and update myself on more recent techniques in the field. I also had the chance to meet other researchers from across Africa and to begin to build a network of researchers for future collaborations. Thank you for being very supportive and for investing your time and experience into building capacity on the African continent.”

Yee Chu, one of the workshop facilitators from the NUMed team: "It was exciting to visit Addis Ababa as my first trip to the African continent! We were embraced in a warm welcome from colleagues and workshop participants. We had many stimulating conversations about each other's work within water research, and despite minor language barriers and cultural differences, we all share the same enthusiasm regarding water conservation, land development, and the welfare of the environment as a whole. Everyone is eager to learn more in order to contribute more, and the place is full of potential and opportunities. I'm optimistic towards the impacts of our workshop and confident that the work done today will bear fruits tomorrow."

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