Double award in national Three Minute Thesis competition

12 November 2018 | Story Laura Rawden. Photo Robyn Walker. Read time 7 min.

Doctoral candidate Rene Nsanzubuhoro has developed a novel device that can be used to assess the extent of leaks in sections of water pipeline and other fluid-pipeline systems, without the need for costly and invasive efforts. A combination of inspiration and passion brought him to this point, including his recent success winning first place and the People’s Choice Award in the national Three Minute Thesis competition held in Bloemfontein in October.  

“My parents always inspired me to do the best I can,” says Nsanzubuhoro. “Their positive energy and consistent support played a big part in everything that I’ve achieved today.”

Part of that means winning accolades for his research thesis. This October, Nsanzubuhoro won the national Three Minute Thesis, or 3MT award. In the competition, where PhD candidates are given just three minutes to explain their PhDs to the public, Nsanzubuhoro won first place and the People’s Choice Award.

“Winning both was a really pleasant surprise,” says Nsanzubuhoro. “I believe in what I do and believe in how important it is, and I’m glad I was able to win by sharing my passion.”

His presentation, titled “Fighting leakage one pipe at a time”, summarises his work on a revolutionary device designed to assess the condition of pipelines, allowing people to detect leaks, identify the type of leak and assess the volume of water being lost.

In Cape Town, where water scarcity has fuelled a city-wide crisis, it is timely research. But for Nsanzubuhoro, it was also inspired by his background.

Engineering inspiration

Born in Rwanda, Nsanzubuhoro moved to Swaziland as a child and remained there through his formative years. Growing up, he spent time on sites with his father, a civil engineer, who brought the young Nsanzubuhoro with him into the field.


“I believe in what I do and believe in how important it is, and I’m glad I was able to win by sharing my passion.”

“With my dad as a civil engineer, I was exposed to a lot of engineering-related work. I’d help my dad and go to sites with him, and I really enjoyed that,” he says.

Watching his father at work, Nsanzubuhoro remembers experiencing different projects such as those involving water and rural development. “I was able to see what civil engineering was all about and the impact civil engineers have on society and this really inspired me,” he says.

With his interests sparked by this early experience, Nsanzubuhoro is now driven by a passion for research – something he says was inspired by his UCT research supervisor, Professor Kobus van Zyl.

“If my dad inspired the career as whole, Kobus inspired the research side. I found his work fascinating and he was always very supportive and motivating,” he says.

“The device I’ve developed is actually the outcome of more than 15 years of research that Prof Van Zyl has been doing in modelling pipe leakage.”

Theirs is a mutual admiration, according to Van Zyl, who says Nsanzubuhoro is both intelligent and curious. “It feels great to have somebody like Rene work in the civil engineering field, where problems are complex and are closely intertwined with society and its needs,” he says.

“Rene is the sort of person who understands science and people, and I expect that he will make a big impact.”

Developing a device with impact

Nsanzubuhoro is on the right track to do just that. The device he developed for his thesis has the potential to impact infrastructure throughout South Africa: teams of labourers can be trained to use the device, moving from pipe section to pipe section and reporting the leaks and their properties. When this is done on a regular basis, they will be able to collect information on how leaks develop and their properties. This will help them to determine the best time to repair, refurbish or replace a pipeline.


“Nobody else can do this at the moment.”

It’s a first of its kind, says Nsanzubuhoro. “Nobody else can do this at the moment.”

Currently working to refine the device and its commercial availability, Nsanzubuhoro is collaborating closely with municipalities that he hopes will adopt it.

“My hope is that this work can help educate municipalities and all stakeholders in the industry to manage water inrastructure better and reduce water that is lost through leakage,” he says.

As he nears the completion of his PhD, Nsanzubuhoro is also looking ahead to his own future. Next year, he’s set to work with an engineering consulting firm in Cape Town. The role will keep him in the hydraulic engneering field, holding fast the type of work he did for his PhD.

“My goal right now is to get more experience in the practical side of engineering and eventually register as a professional engineer,” he says.

Cape Town is a city he isn’t quite ready to leave yet. It’s where he met and married his wife, Xochiwe Jere, and has a special place in his heart. It’s also where their two-year-old daughter Bella Mahoro Mbali was born.

“Cape Town is a very important city to me. My wife and I love it, and plan to stay here for some time,” he says.

Wherever he lands up, it will be certain that hard work and positive energy got him there. “I think success means having a good attitude, being positive and working hard of course. It comes with a lot of hard work.”

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