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Kenyan students innovate to fill Covid-19 ventilator shortage

Kenyatta University’s prototype ventilator.
Kenyatta University’s prototype ventilator. © James Shimanyula
4 min

Fifteen medical and engineering students at Kenya’s Kenyatta University have made history by making the country's first homegrown ventilator to help treat patients severely affected by the coronavirus. 

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As of Saturday 25 April, confirmed cases of coronavirus in Kenya stood at 343 with 14 deaths. But officials are taking no chances with the highly contagious Covid-19 disease and have placed the country under lockdown with a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Should there be a spike in new cases, the country's health network only has 259 functional ventilators, according to Dr Idris Nzao Chikophe, Secretary-General of the Kenya Critical Care Society.

That's where the Kenyatta University students step in.

Leader of the group, Fidel Makatia, says his team is set to produce fifty ventilators within two weeks – an output they are capable of maintaining.

“This ventilator detects oxygen and normal air then it gives it enough pressure and volume required to ventilate a patient,” Makatia tells RFI, explaining the newly-made device. “Then passes it through a humidifier to give it enough humidity and temperature required for the human body.”

Mechanical ventilators take over the body’s breathing process. This is normally caused by a failure in the normal performance of the lung.

The student team at Kenyatta University say they are capable of producing fifty ventilators per fortnight.
The student team at Kenyatta University say they are capable of producing fifty ventilators per fortnight. © James Shimanyula

A sick person also needs a higher percentage of oxygen than normal. “We are breathing 21 percent of oxygen because we are normal. But patients may require a higher percentage – thirty, forty, up to maybe eighty percent.”

Highest standards

The students are not working alone. Kenyatta University provided mentors and also the work space that led to this innovation – the Chandaria Business Incubation and Innovation Centre, named after Manu Chandaria, one of Kenya’s prominent business magnates.

The centre is a stone’s throw from the university entrance and the modern main road from Nairobi, to the central region of the country.

The centre made it easier for the students to meet high standards such as those set by the International Standards Organization, or ISO.

Kenyatta University's Incubation Centre, with Dr Shadrack Maina Mambo, Dean of Engineering and Technology, performing a demonstration.
Kenyatta University's Incubation Centre, with Dr Shadrack Maina Mambo, Dean of Engineering and Technology, performing a demonstration. © James Shimanyula

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Mass production

“This equipment was made according to ISO standards, the Kenya Bureau of Standards and Pharmacy and Poisons Boards standards,” says Professor Nicholas Kamindu Gikonyo from the university’s School of Pharmacy. “The express purpose of the students is to fill the Covid-19-related ventilator shortage in Kenyan hospitals.

“We have always taught them about the practical applications of whatever they learn. And to see them transforming that into an idea, and then into a product, was very exciting.”

Kenyatta University unveils student-made ventilator prototype

Doctor Shadrack Maina Mambo, Dean of School of Engineering and Technology at the university, says the team hoped to fill not just the domestic shortage.

“We are making ventilators to mitigate the shortage experienced in the country and the African continent as a whole,” Mambo tells RFI. “We have a team of professionals who will oversee mass production of ventilators.

Africa on the move

“This prototype has been tested and it has been shown to meet all the parameters that are required in helping a patient to breath.”

The team from Kenyatta University joins fellow students in Ghana and Uganda, who have taken the lead in producing homegrown ventilators.

In a time of Covid-19 crisis, Africa is showing itself to be a continent on the move.

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