The abrupt cessation of in-person dealings in many aspects of life as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 has led to many people staying at home. Seeking ways to beat boredom and, at the same time, be of use in the fight against the disease, some Malawian innovators have turned their homes into ‘factories’ and ‘sanctuaries of hope’. Using 3D technology, crowdsourcing and locally available resources, the innovators are producing what could be life saving devices in the wake of the disease. As Mallick Mnela reports, hands-free door openers, hands-free handwashers, reusable face masks and the much-needed ventilators are not only being “Made in Malawi” but from backyards of technology enthusiasts.
Following a wave of widespread cases of the COVID-19, a disease caused by the novel Coronavirus, many nations across the globe – big and small, rich or poor – have been grappling with shortage of resources to effectively wage war against the disease.
Malawi has not been spared.
The Southern African nation, whose majority citizens live in poverty according to the World Bank, is now isolated from the rest of the world with neighbours Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique all on lockdown.
The country’s airspace and borders are closed for travellers. Only cargo planes and trucks for essential goods are granted access.
However, in the wake of the unprecedented physical distance measures across countries, internet connectivity has offered an opportunity for some Malawians to capitalize on crowdsourcing with other innovators from across the globe to develop products that are critical to the prevention and managing symptoms of the Coronavirus disease among patients.
As COVID-19 cases started to get registered in the country, the reality begun to sink in and some young Malawian innovators swiftly embarked on a journey to domesticate globally developed innovations riding on crowdsourcing and 3D printing technology.
Embracing the latest 3D technology and locally accessible materials, the innovators are developing much-needed devices such as hands-free door openers, hands-free hand washers and ventilators in their homes.
Blantyre-based Telecommunications Engineering Lecturer at the Polytechnic and Managing Director of iMoSyS Mayamiko Nkoloma is producing reusable face masks and working on a prototype ventilator, using crowdsourcing and 3D technology.
He has also produced Personnel Protective Equipment (PPE) that will be donated to public health facilities fighting COVID-19.
During his stay at home free hours, Lilongwe-based Systems Engineer McNeil Mhango produces hygiene hands-free door openers and 3D printed face masks.
Youngster and college drop-out Zac Caleb Mwale is working on a ventilator and hands-free hygiene hand washers.
In separate interviews Nkoloma, Mhango and Mwale stressed that their passion for life-saving innovations prompted them to jump in on the opportunity to help fight the COVID-19.
“An engineer’s work should be able to change lives. Personally, I am inspired by a need to save lives in the wake of the pandemic,” said Nkoloma who has taken his passion from producing technological products to the next level.
Working in his home office in Blantyre, Nkoloma prints various parts and accessories required for his projects on a number of 3D printers.
He has been working on reusable face masks and a ventilator prototype as part of his response to the “stay at home” calls.
“The ventilator we are working on won’t replace an ICU ventilator. But you will appreciate that for a country that has a few of these gadgets, Malawi needs something to control any potential damage. We also hear that the majority of patients won’t need intensive care if they are treated with the basic type of ventilator first,” said Nkoloma from his home office in Mpingwe, Blantyre.
He, however, cautions that the ventilator project needs time for careful designing as it is a matter of life and death.
“It requires patience. But the good thing is we are making progress,” he added.
Also operating from his home office in Lilongwe, Mhango said he has been taking advantage of crowdsourcing to produce face masks and hands-free door handles for family and friends.
He said the hygiene-friendly door-opener is intended to help people avoid touching surfaces that could be contaminated in this time of the COVID-19 COVID-19 pandemic.
“Imagine that tricky moment when you’re just coming out of the toilet. You need to open the toilet door with sanitized hands but you’re not sure if you’re safe. This technology helps dispel such fears. It gives you a better option to open the door without necessarily touching it,” added Mhango.
Talking of hands hygiene, Mwale has designed a hands-free handwasher using locally accessible resources.
“Most of the handwashing facilities being deployed still present room for contamination at the point of abolition,” Mwale noted, stressing that the innovative handwasher he has developed uses feet to dispense liquid soap and water.
“All you do is press the pedals,” he said.
Like Nkoloma, Mwale is a serial innovator. He has also, just like Nkoloma, designed a ventilator.
The significance of the attempt to design and get the technology approved by government is measured by the scarcity of ventilators in the country’s hospitals.
Currently, Malawi has not more than 50 ventilators which are required for patients that present with breathing difficulties.
While face masks are available, the 3D printed ones are reusable after being sanitized and replacing the N95 filter.
The innovators are not discouraged by their inability to mass produce.
Nkoloma, who has since increased 3D printers to increase production capacity, says low output should not be seen as a let down.
“We can save a life with that one ventilator or prevent that single infection that potentially spread to hundreds in no time with a single mask. We cannot afford to doubt ourselves. Every little effort counts,” he said.
His fellow 3D enthusiast Mhango stressed that in an era of widespread 3D printing and enabling software, mass production is still possible.
“Globally, small-scale producers are leading the way like never before. That’s the fact,” corroborated Mhango, a Lilongwe-based Systems Engineer.
Mhango thinks government should consider the role of 3D technology in responding to the country’s development needs.
Mhango added that the 3D masks are safe because users use N95 filters accessible in local pharmacies.
While technology is a preserve for a privileged few – and relatively costly – some Malawians and foreign nationals have teamed up to initiate an project aimed at mass producing low cost face masks.
One of the people championing the Masks for All Malawi initiative in Lilongwe Zilanie Gondwe said the decision to produce the clothe-based face masks is to ensure that Malawians of humble means can afford the opportunity to shield themselves against the COVID-19.
“Many people are doing this work. The urgency is so real. We have to do whatever we can to stop the spread in Malawi,” said Gondwe whose movement intends to increase usage of face masks.
The organisation is also making soap with a network of over 3,000 volunteers in 200 villages across Malawi.
Health minister Jappie Mhango recently emphasised the need for multi-sectoral approach to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We believe if we work together, everybody playing a small role, we shall overcome the disease,” he said.
The COVID-19 is a relatively new disease without a vaccine or treatment, leaving health practitioners to work on managing symptoms until the patient’s body immunity regains capacity to fight against the virus.
At the time of writing this report, Malawi had registered 16 COVID-19 cases – and two people had succumbed to the disease.
Before the COVID-19, public hospitals used to register about 850 000 admissions per year.
However, the number is expected to shoot up due to the disease based on mathematical models projections by the Malawi government.
As many as 50,000 could die if the country’s health system fails to contain the disease earlier.
As a preventive measure against contracting the disease, the ministry of health is urging people to observe some set health guidelines including staying at home, observing physical distance by keeping a distance of at least a meter or two meters from others, maintaining hand hygiene and avoiding handshakes.
The Malawi government has since banned social gatherings, urging citizens feeling sick with COVID-19 symptoms to notify health authorities so that they receive medical help without endangering others.
The story of Malawian innovators being told here epitomises the capacity for technology to collapse geographical barriers to access essential products, even at a time governments have enforced lockdowns.
The story illustrates that crowdsourcing and 3D technology offer world class human ingenuity to those opting out of public life in the face of adversity but refuse to be of no use to the broader population.
Overall, this provides a welcome glimmer of hope in the wake of the COVID-19 on the shores of the impoverished Southern African nation rich in compassionate technology enthusiasts.
While the innovative minds retreated to their homes escaping the COVID-19, they have a plan: to turn their homes into sanctuaries of hope for Malawians and creating spaces within their homes as war rooms to strategise on a resilient battle against the novel Coronavirus disease.