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Key innovations will outlive war on pandemic

By Victor Odula | May 23rd 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

As Covid-19 infections surge, it is reassuring to see unity of purpose and the collective effort of Kenyans in the war. 

Shortages of medical supplies, including drugs and technological apparatus, however, remain a problem not only in African nations, but most countries across the world. Even in New York City, the centre of global wealth, they have been desperately looking around for extra supplies.

Thus far, cases of Covid-19 have been kept fairly low in Kenya due to the government’s rapid response. While the physical distancing regulations and early curfew have been tough on many, these rules are ultimately saving lives. We should do our best to observe them to prevent the looming economic and health catastrophe. But since no vaccine yet exists and humans have no natural immunity to Covid-19, the virus will inevitably continue to spread. 

To cope with this challenge, many Kenyan companies have been figuring out their own ways of contributing to mitigation. Kitui County Textile Centre (Kicotec), a textile factory in Syongila, transformed itself into a 24-hour mask production centre. Its employees have retained their jobs and are producing 30,000 masks each day. 

And recently, 3D printing companies have shifted their focus towards the national agenda. Nairobi-based Ultra Red Technologies now prints plastic face shields since it will take some time before plastic manufacturers are able to create a mould and begin rapid production. 

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The company is using an open source prototype shared by a Swedish company. Ultra Red Technologies has also designed a 3D-printed prototype of a ventilator adaptor that will allow doctors to treat up to four patients at once if necessary. Working in conjunction with medical equipment distributors, they are working right now to test on artificial lungs. Other Kenyan printing companies joining the effort include Kisumu-based Kijenzi and Nairobi-based Kuunda 3D. 3D printing of medical equipment is a new but popular phenomenon in Africa. While Kenya is a leader in the continent’s general digital technology scene, the 3D printing scene is still relatively small in comparison to countries like South Africa. 

The incorporation of 3D printing with Medtech might be exactly what is needed to give it a boost. If their creations are scalable, they could potentially work with the government on future healthcare initiatives. The combination of the Universal Health Coverage system with an increasing number of young tech-savvy entrepreneurs is what is needed to overcome mounting challenges. Two of the main principles of the Big Four are increasing local manufacturing and offering quality, affordable healthcare to each Kenyan. Sometimes it takes a crisis, such as a global health pandemic, a war or an economic collapse to bring about original and profitable innovation. Emergency situations often push us to grapple with setbacks we were not even aware of, to think about problems in a critical way, to figure out what is missing and how the gap can be sealed.  

It is important that we see things in this way right now - as a situation with some positivity. With light at the end of the tunnel, we have nothing to fear.  

Perhaps Covid-19 will be the catalyst that pushes Kenya’s start-up ecosystem one step further, broadening the context in which technological SMEs operate here. This could be the beginning of more long-term growth for many local Kenyan companies and a boon for our production capabilities. Private-public partnerships have long been a hallmark of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration. The government can serve as a guide to shepherd its people towards positive economic growth. But ultimately, our strength is in our people and their ability to innovate.  

The writer is a community health worker

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