The Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize, now in its fifth year, has shortlisted 6 Kenyans among the 16 African inventors from six countries who will receive funding, training and mentoring for projects intended to revolutionise sectors from agriculture and science to women’s health.
The Africa Prize encourages ambitious and talented sub-Saharan African engineers from all disciplines to apply their skills to develop scalable solutions to local challenges, highlighting the importance of engineering as an enabler of improved quality of life and economic development. Crucial commercialisation support is awarded to a shortlist of innovative applicants through an eight-month period of training and mentoring.
Following this period of mentorship, finalists are invited to present at an event held in Africa and a winner is selected to receive £25,000 along with three runners-up, who are each awarded £10,000.
The shortlisted Kenyans’ inventions, listed below, include smart gloves that turn sign language into audio speech, an online vaccine tracker, a self-charging electric hand cart and an innovation which harvests moisture from the air.
Roy Allela, Sign-IO
Sign-IO combines a mobile app with smart gloves that track and translate sign language movements into speech in real time.
The intelligent system was designed with young children in mind, and is being developed in conjunction with young users with hearing and speech impediments. Hardware embedded inside the glove reads the user’s finger movements, and compares these to an internal database based on American Sign Language.
The mobile app then translates this to speech immediately – and users can set the gender, pitch, tempo and delay of the voice that represents them.
Designed with two of his nieces in mind, Allela is learning sign-language himself in order to understand the challenges that the machine learning algorithm is going to face as it develops. Sign-IO, which stands for Sign-Input-Output, is currently being tested by children as young as five, with the hope that the next iteration will be ready as a gift for his nieces’ sixth birthday.
Kenneth Guantai, Elo-cart self-charging electric hand cart
Guantai’s self-charging electric hand carts run on batteries that are powered by the excess energy produced by their very own rotating wheels.
Capturing energy from moving axles as the hand cart is pushed along, kinetic energy is amplified through a series of gears and then converted into electric energy to be stored in a battery pack. A second battery pack actually powers the hand cart, and when depleted, is swapped out with the pack that has been charging at the same time. The depleted battery pack is then charged by movement, starting the cycle all over.
Hand carts are a typical feature of informal Kenyan commerce, with thousands of vendors using them as shops and transport between major markets and supply points. Hospitals use hand carts to move medicine and food, and airports run diesel-powered carts to transport luggage between planes and luggage holds.
Guantai believes that the regenerative motion recharging system, which can power a cart for hours, will have a major impact on the productivity of vendors and workers, taking a large portion of physical exertion out of their tasks.
Collince Oluoch, Chanjo Plus
Chanjoplus is an online system that helps parents and health-care workers track vaccines, ensuring children get access to life-saving medicine.
Built to be integrated into Kenya’s national healthcare system, Chanjoplus was created following extensive research with nurses, and volunteers who dispense vaccines and parents.
After working as a vaccination volunteer himself, Oluoch came across irregularities in national vaccination drives that saw thousands of children miss out on their vaccines. Volunteers invent names to increase their quota of vaccines, parents lose their children’s vaccine cards, and healthcare facilities are overwhelmed by paperwork associated with an outdated, manual system that leaves little room for human error.
Chanjoplus is currently in a pilot phase, with volunteers receiving training on the system in Nairobi for their second trial.
James Ochuka, JuaKaliSmart
JuaKaliSmart is an online store designed specifically to help informal artisans in Kenya deal directly with customers.
The word Juakali originally refers to welders that work on the side of the street, translating as ‘under the hot sun’. The phrase has come to refer to informal artisans in general, thousands of who work in towns and cities across Kenya.
Ochuka developed JuaKaliSmart for artisans in Eldoret, where he lives, and found it challenging to introduce the artisans to the concept of e-commerce.
Today, however, there are hundreds of products listed on the site, and a core group of Juakali have been central in developing the app to better suit their needs. JuaKaliSmart has gone from an online store akin to Amazon, to a mobile app which allows buyers to talk directly to Juakali.
Beth Koigi, Majik Water
Majik Water harvests moisture from the air to provide affordable, clean drinking water to off-grid communities.
The all-in-one system harvests, stores and then dispenses water. Custom built water dispensers – or water ‘ATMs’ – will allow communities to pay only for as much water as they need.
After meeting at a hackathon, Koigi and team mates decided to focus on the water needs of rural communities in Kenya who live in arid and semi-arid areas. Experimenting with different ways to absorb and then release water, the team is doing extensive research at several sites in Nairobi, while also installing their first commercial units in South Africa. A successful pilot run in collaboration with a children’s home in an informal Nairobi settlement will continue to be adapted and tested in an area where the need is greatest.
Water ATMs are already prominent in Kenya, typically supplied by costly reverse osmosis devices. The Majik Water team hopes to supplement this technology with something more affordable.
George Chege, Smart Brooder
Smart Brooder is an intelligent energy management system to automate chicken coops, giving farmers more freedom and peace of mind.
Pre-programmed to understand the needs of chickens at every stage of their development, the Smart Brooder system controls heating, measures temperatures and humidity, and advises farmers and workers when physical intervention is required.
Chege developed Smart Brooder with team mates who own their own chicken farms, a fairly typical way to supplement income in Kenya. The system can activate and deactivate heating systems – whether they run on electricity or gas – and allows farmers to remotely manage their chicken coops.
Chege has already installed several commercial units around Nairobi, and now faces the challenge of convincing users that Kenyan technology can be as reliable as expensive imported solutions.