Africa’s tech scene tackles coronavirus


Observing from afar that much of the world fell to its knees due to the coronavirus, scientists, engineers and innovators in Africa have turned to local solutions to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

By the time the virus reached Africa, where cases have increased relatively slowly, images of overwhelmed hospitals and stories of healthcare workers tied up in protective gear had been arriving for weeks.

Mehul Shah of Ultra Red Technologies, a 3D printing company in Nairobi, said that he and his partner Neeval Shah quickly realized that they could be “first responders” in the production of locally manufactured equipment.

In just three days, they put together a working design for 3D printed face shields made up of a visor attached to a plastic sheet. They currently produce around 500 a day.

“It is very important that we can show Kenyans that we can do this here and that we do not need to rely on import. We have the innovative knowledge and the means to do this here,” he told AFP.

The team is also helping to produce components that allow ventilators to be used on more than one patient, as well as to print locally manufactured ventilator parts.

While Kenya only has 912 cases and 50 deaths after just over two months, “we are preparing for the worst case scenario,” Mehul said.

He said it was “the first time” to see manufacturers in Kenya and even around the world collaborating so much.

“All companies are looking at how they can use their resources to help. All the competitors who would be fighting each other are uniting. “

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In Benin, the new Blolab, a digital manufacturing laboratory, has also been printing 3D face shields.

– Contact tracking applications –

Developers of Kenya’s thriving tech scene are among several on the mainland working on contact tracking applications.

FabLab, an innovation hub in western Kisumu, has developed an app called Msafari (Safari means Travel in Swahili) that can track passengers on public transport.

With it, passengers entering a minibus taxi, known as a matatu, can enter a simple code on their phone along with the vehicle’s registration number.

“If one of those passengers tested positive, we can now trace all the contacts that were recorded on that particular vehicle,” said Tairus Ooyi, senior application developer and data scientist at FabLab.

– Low cost fans –

Another area of ​​innovation has been the production of ventilators, which have been scarce even in wealthy countries, as COVID-19 patients who need oxygen have flooded hospitals.

Most African countries have only a handful of machines, and 10 have none, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Africa.

In Kenya, engineering students in collaboration with the Kenyatta University department of medicine produced a low-cost ventilator at one-tenth the price of an imported machine, estimated at $ 10,000.

Dr. Gordon Ogweno, a professor of medicine at the university, said Kenya had about 50 ventilators running for a population of more than 50 million.

“We are making machines with locally available material … pandemics can come and go, but other conditions also require critical care,” he said.

The ventilator is undergoing clinical trials.

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In Ghana, the Academic City College in Accra and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi managed to produce a fan costing between $ 500 and $ 1,000 that takes just one hour to assemble.

A group of Rwandan biomedical scientists at the Kigali Regional Integrated Polytechnic College have also been testing a prototype of a locally manufactured fan.

Meanwhile, in Somalia in Africa, which has limited capacity to respond to its growing number of cases, 21-year-old Mohamed Adawe invented an automated resuscitator.

While doctors typically need to pump oxygen through an Ambu bag valve mask by hand in patients struggling to breathe, Adawe’s contraption, consisting of a wooden box, pipes, and an electrical system, pushes oxygen out of a air tank to a mask placed over the patient’s mouth.

“I saw people who were having difficulty breathing and many died because they couldn’t get a machine to help them provide vital oxygen,” said Adawe, who studies public health.

– Drones and robots –

In addition to locally made items, African countries are also employing other technology to combat the virus.

Last week, Rwanda in Africa began using four humanoid robots at coronavirus treatment centers to minimize human-to-human contact. They can detect temperatures and monitor the condition of patients.

In Ghana, the American company Zipline, which uses drones to transport drugs, blood and vaccines to avoid bad roads, has started to transport tests for coronavirus.

“The government told us that their biggest challenge is that the virus has spread outside of cities, they have suspected cases appearing in rural areas and logistics from rural to cities is very difficult,” said the CEO of Zipline at Ghana Daniel Marfo.

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