Using Mobile Apps to Improve Air Quality Awareness in Ghana, with Dr. Collins Gameli Hodoli

A metal-clad machine sits atop a platform, raised high in the air by metal stilts. The top of a palm tree can be seen in the background, against a blue sky.

Image caption: Air quality monitoring stations like this one in Accra, Ghana, can be expensive to install and maintain, but the data they collect can improve awareness of air pollution by the public and policymakers, leading to more robust monitoring and stronger pollution control. Image credit: Official photographer of the U.S. Embassy in Ghana.

Script by: Sophie Wenzlau Audio by: Olivia Zhao Blurb by: Amanda Neslund

What’s the state of air quality in Ghana?

Over the last century, environmental pollution and air quality have been worsening in Africa. An estimated 28,000 deaths in Ghana and 780,000 deaths across the continent each year are associated with poor air quality. The World Health Organization found air pollution in 2020 to be the second highest risk factor for premature death in Ghana. Vehicle emissions, industrial waste, slash-and-burn farming methods, industrial pollution, and biomass burning are the leading contributors to air pollution in the region. 

The role of air quality monitoring in public awareness

Limited air quality monitoring has also exacerbated the problem, as much of air pollution research in Africa is based on modeled data and estimates rather than data collected on-site. One reason for this is the high initial, maintenance, and operating costs of reference-grade air quality monitors. Poor communication of air quality levels also intensifies this situation by leading to a lack of public understanding of the existence, extent, and damages of air pollution. Limited expertise, lack of political will, and economic resistance to change polluting behaviors have also contributed to the current situation. 

Why low-cost environmental sensors?

One solution to improve air quality monitoring in the region is the emergence and utility of low-cost environmental sensing tools. Today over 30 PurpleAir PA-II sensors are deployed throughout Africa, and data from these sensors can be accessed through PurpleAir map or OpenAQ platform. PurpleAir specializes in low-cost air quality monitoring sensors that connect to Wifi to map and share the data on an app. Clean Air One Atmosphere has also helped increase public awareness of air quality by making this data available through the Yakokoe app. However, limited expertise in testing and deploying sensors, analyzing data, and interpreting the results still remains a challenge. A lack of robust infrastructure, reliable internet access, and staff to manage the data are also obstacles. Inequality within access to the data is also a problem, as many of the monitoring stations are located near the capital and urban areas. 

Benefits of increasing public awareness of poor air quality

Increased awareness of the importance of air quality monitoring in Ghana has improved in recent years. In 2021, a collaboration between the World Bank’s Pollution Management and Environmental Health Program, the Environmental Protection Agency of Ghana, and the United States installed three new state-of-the-art air quality monitoring systems. These systems were installed at the University of Ghana in Legon, St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Basic School in Adabraka, and on grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Accra. They measure particulate matter, black carbon, and weather data. Monitoring concentrations of black carbon is vital as it is a short-lived climate pollutant. Although the atmospheric lifetime of black carbon is only four to twelve days, its warming impact on the atmosphere is 460-1,500 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

The U.S. Embassy also publishes data from its station online to increase public accessibility. The goal of this project was also to utilize the data to formulate strategies, policies, and decisions to reduce air pollution. However, air pollution still remains a high concern as the national government does not have nationwide air quality policies or targets. Ghana does have some sector-specific policies and clean air initiatives in Accra, but air pollution remains a growing problem as the country is facing rapid urbanization. Increased air quality monitoring in the country will hopefully increase awareness of air pollution and create policy changes and pollution reductions that will not only benefit Ghanaians, but help the global fight against climate change.

About our guest

Dr. Collins Gameli Hodoli is an environmental scientist, researcher, and activist with a Ph.D. in Environmental and Agri-Food from Cranfield University, UK. The goal of his work is to “engage, educate and empower African citizens on the health-damaging impacts of air pollution.” Holodi is also the founder and director of Clean Air One Atmosphere (CAOA). Over the past three years, CAOA has leveraged international collaboration and the utility of open-source air quality (AQ) data to create awareness of air pollution and associated health risks, meaningfully communicating near-real-time air quality levels and corresponding health effects via locally built first-ever mobile application Yakokoe across Africa. CAOA is the first organization in Africa working to provide such data to better inform public health surveillance, support air pollution health effect studies, and educate civilians. 

Further reading


Transcript

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break: Climate solutions in a hurry.  Today’s proposal? Using a mobile app to gather air pollution data in developing countries. Collins Gameli Hodoli is a university lecturer and nonprofit leader in Ghana. We spoke to him at the recent UN climate conference in Egypt about how access to these data can empower communities to improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions.

Dr. Hodoli: The data is showing that Ghana is very polluted. But then the question is, how do we take action? So, the key thing that we have been doing at Clean Air One Atmosphere is we deploy low-cost sensors, we populate the data, and then we also put out a mobile application.  And once you have that app on your Android device, it tells you the quality of the air within your environment. 

In the secondary schools, we have started deploying low-cost sensors. And then we are engaging the students on how to use the data to mitigate air pollution within that environment. For you to be able to, you know, protect yourself from the harmful effects of air pollution, you need to know where you are exposed.

Ethan: A major barrier to widespread air quality monitoring in Ghana is the lack of funding for sensors, which can be expensive.  

Dr. Hodoli: For most of the areas in Ghana, there is no monitoring device at all.  So, if we have access to funds, we can be able to, you know, expand, establish hyper-local monitoring, engage the communities, engage the local environmental protection agency, teach them even how to use the data, also how to empower others. We can actually inform epidemiologists and policy makers to say that these are the sources of air pollution in Ghana.

Ethan: To learn more about how air quality monitoring can empower communities and policy makers to reduce climate pollution in Ghana and around the world, visit climatebreak.org.

Using Mobile Apps to Improve Air Quality Awareness in Ghana, with Dr. Collins Gameli Hodoli