Many social media users have been in a state of outrage after industrial designer Retief Krige announced the creation a greywater storage bank to increase toilet capacity for grey water use. The outrage was stoked by accusations that Krige had stolen the idea of the deceased University of Cape Town (UCT) student Nkosinathi Nkomo, who last year generated headlines for his own grey water system before passing away.
Nkomo made headlines late last year after he created a grey water irrigation system which collects water from washing machines, baths and showers to irrigate gardens and flush toilets. In an interview with UCT News Nkomo said this system would help with the water crisis faced by the City of Cape Town and the rest of the country. He and two other partners also formed a company AquaRenu Greywater.
However, in December 2017, Nkomo died after he allegedly fell out of a fifth floor apartment at a hotel in Cape Town.
Conspiracy theories started circulating after Nkomo’s father “ruled out” suicide as the cause of his son’s death. However, these theories intensified after Western Cape premier Helen Zille tweeted about Krige’s Water Loo, a grey water bank which also cleaned and stored salvaged household water, such as shower water for toilet reuse. Many people were angered by this, and accused the designer of stealing Nkomo’s idea and receiving full credit for it.
Congratulations Retief Krige, the industrial designer who created Waterloo, the quick and easy way of using your shower water to flush your loo. Affordable too! https://t.co/HOyBqAyDpp pic.twitter.com/PIuHFeeGMQ
— Helen Zille (@helenzille) February 7, 2018
A Black South African student named Nkosinathi Nkomo created a brilliant water purification invention to assist the drought in Cape Town. He mysteriously falls from a building a dies. Then a white inventor took credit for his invention https://t.co/w2GPnlxYZs
— Tariq Nasheed (@tariqnasheed) February 11, 2018
Justice for Nkosinathi Nkomo!!!! He invented this and then he “fell off a 50 story building” !!!
Nkosinathi won’t allow it to rain there till there is justice !! #JusticeForNkosinathiNkomo https://t.co/EKsu2CWNEr
— Samú (@SamkeloNdlovu) February 8, 2018
Zille then said that she was not aware of Nkomo’s design and Krige’s design had no link to it or his death.
To those who messaged me about Nkosinathi Nkomo’s tragic death: to suggest it is connected to another industrial designer who didn’t know him is extremely unfair. The 2 systems are very different. If Nkosinathi had invited me to the launch of his product I would have been there!
— Helen Zille (@helenzille) February 8, 2018
In an interview with The Daily Vox, Krige said that social media had made him aware of Nkomo’s water saving product, and this was from first he’d heard of it.
“We wish to point out that Water Loo greywater bank is an original and distinct product,” he said. Krieg also said that not only is system a totally different design, the functionality and purpose of the product was for a different household applications.
Krige further said that a patent application for his system has been filed.
“All retail outlets are listed on our website and we do not have any government interest or contracts,” he said.
According to the company’s website, WaterLoo is a non-permanent installation that fits on top of toilet cisterns. The system provides storage space above the cistern to allow for multi flushing. The model does not require electricity or plumbing. Retief said the WaterLoo system is not a greywater harvesting system, but “a functional greywater bank that increases the capacity of a toilet cistern and, at the same time, making it easy to pour greywater from buckets into the greywater bank,” he said.
Nkomo’s greywater irrigation system that also uses household salvaged water for gardening and flushing the toilet. However, Nkomo’s system is installed outside and is mainly designed for schools and residential complexes.
Despite many people expressing how upset they are and speculating that Nkomo’s idea might have been stolen, intellectual property expert Dr Umeshree Govender of the University of KwaZulu Natal’s intellectual property department explained to The Daily Vox that if a student created an invention in the scope of their studies, the invention then belongs to the state.
“If that was done at the scope of their studies and registration at UCT, UCT is the custodian of that intellectual property (IP), and thus the South African government,” Govender said.
Govender said that while the state owns such an invention, the creator should receive remuneration for any commercialisation of the product. According to Section 10 of the Intellectual Property Rights Act of 2008, intellectual property creators are entitled to a portion of 20 percent that accrue to the institution from the intellectual property for the first million rand of revenues and 30% of nett revenues thereafter.
Govender further said that it may be difficult to legally prove the similarities if there has been no formal registration of the idea. “I guess here in this case, that does not exist, and will have to somehow prove that that person has stolen that,” she said.
The Daily Vox tried to reach out to AquaRenu for comment but were unavailable by the time of publication.