Innovation Action Insights: Episode 1

Giulia Barbareschi  00:07

Hi, everyone, and welcome to the first episode of innovation Action Inight, a space where we share stories of amazing innovations and innovators who are working to tackle some of the biggest global challenges of our time. My name is Giulia Barbareschi and I'm joined by my friend and co host, Ben Oldfrey.

Ben Oldfrey  00:29

Hi, folks.

Giulia Barbareschi  00:30

This podcast is brought to you by the Innovation Action collaborative initiative, led by the Global Disability Innovation Hub and funded by UKAid. Innovation Action was created by a consortium of organisations that believe in the importance of connecting the dots, and that bringing people together can help to spark and grow innovations that make a real impact on the lives of people that live in less resource settings. The word manufacturing it's often associated with an image of multinational corporations shipping large amounts of materials, across continents, to big factories. In these factories, specialised heavy machines are operated by trained workers to produce small parts that are then assembled into finished products. Products are then packaged and shipped back to stores where consumers can get access to them. While many of the products that we use in our everyday lives are still made this way, innovators around the world have developed new and alternative models of manufacturing. Today, we'll look at some examples of how entrepreneurs in Nepal and Uganda have been able to harness the power of digital technologies and human creativity to create fair and resilient manufacturing systems that bring value to their community. The ongoing covid 19 pandemic has shown how traditional manufacturing models that rely on international shipping of resources and products can be severely disrupted by emergencies that affect the cross country supply chain connections. Crossed by the Himalayas, shaken by earthquakes and often facing economic challenges, Nepal is no stranger to supply chain issues. Ram from Zener technologies, a Nepalese company specialising in 3D design and manufacturing is going to join us today to tell us about how since 2016, they have leveraged 3D printing technologies to address local manufacturing challenges.  Hi Ram, and thank you so much for joining us here.

Ram Chandra Thapa  02:56

Hi. Hello, Giulia. Thank you. Thank you for inviting me to this podcast.

Giulia Barbareschi  03:00

Hi you're very welcome. It's a pleasure to have you. Ram, I wanted to ask you since Zener Technologies was created in 2016, you have designed and printed an enormous variety of products from pipe cutters, to house models, and I even heard microphones. But why was Zener Technologies founded in the first place?

Ram Chandra Thapa  03:31

Zener Technologies was formed in 2016. That was right after massive earthquake hit Nepal. And I graduated from Indian University the year before. And then I wanted to return back to my country, from a company and work on digital manufacturing. And then I was also involved partly with (indistinguishable).  We used to be working on development context, making humanitarian relief items using these the manufacturing process locally. So this kind of introduced me into making the supplies locally in Nepal. So you know, at the very beginning, when Zener Technologies was found, we were you know making almost anything, anything we could do for the for the community. So that time, you know, we were very unclear about our business model, because the technology in itself was very new to Nepal. So we really did have no idea but but we had ready skills, we knew design we need, we knew manufacturing, and we knew the local context. So first thing was we were supporting engineering institutions and universities, make educational prototypes and, you know, finally engineering projects. So we were helping (indistinguishable) to make robotic parts. And then, as we continued working on other local industries, they knew about our companies that D3 printing exists in Nepal, and then we begin, you know, trying to transition into making industrial products. So industrial prototypes for plastic manufacturers for sand casting factories for local art and crafts sectors, you know, we're making masterpiece for them. And then, you know, one day, a very good TV, Nepal idol, that's a franchise of Idol, so they contact us to make good microphone, because they couldn't find a good supplier who could ship from China in a very short time, they need to make that in three days. We didn't target art and craft sector. But, you know, we had set a Facebook promotion for one of our work. And then that week, you know, tens and 20s of local art and craft sector people, they came with their, with an art, that was very complex. And they were like, Oh, we don't do this. Because, you know, the design would be very complex. And we didn't have any experience working with it, but because the market needs it we began doing it. In March 2020, I had just returned from Bangladesh, Cox's Bazar, working with Rohingya crisis, I was there with Filori organisation. I was I was deployed there as a, as an engineering consultant to make assistive devices for the children's in Rohinga Camp, for the for the refugees, I loved it. And then I was back to Nepal. And when I returned back, Nepal entered into lockdown. So March, middle of March, and then it entered into lockdown. And I received so many calls. And you know, so many calls from medical professionals, doctors who I knew before, the development agencies, they were calling me to make 3D printed face shields. And then I checked into internet, I found so many good companies on Europe, America, they were uniting the 3D printing and digital manufacturing sector to ramp up PPE production. At the same time, WHO was requesting all the producers to ramp up PPE production by 40%. And then that time, I had a sense that I should act. Then I, I, I copied one of the design from internet, there was good design. And then I tried a 3D printer. So I 3D printed, it was taking two hours to finish one design. And then I was like, with few 3D printers we got how are we going to meet demands, because there were lots of demands. And then I posted in Facebook, requesting my friends, and my network who has 3D printers to come together to make 3D printer face shields. And they answered it, so many people, you know, they they met, they mapped themselves into my Facebook post, hearing in the request. And then we found a group of 20 plus 3D printer owners. So total there were there were more than 40 3d printers. And then we were making 100 plus 3D printer face shields a day.

Giulia Barbareschi  08:34

It's such an amazing story of ingenuity and people coming together and creativity and all together. One thing that I'm really curious about is what do you think are the main strengths of 3D printing and other digital manufacturing methods, especially in this situations created by the pandemic in Nepal.

Ram Chandra Thapa  09:05

The conventional manufacturing processes are disconnected, they're very disconnected to come into, disconnected to the world, disconnected to resources. Opposed to it, these are manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, CNC laser cutting, these are connected, so they have internet, you can share files. So you know if there is a problem in one community, and one has a solution for the for the community that can be uploaded in WAV to internet, the very moment that can be downloaded in (indistinguishable). So if you are able to make something in London, I can easily download that in Kathmandu if you if you share it. And there are already already so many existing platforms in internet where you can log in, find resources and then start making. So digital manufacturing has that flexibility. And today's digital manufacturing processes, you don't even need very high skills and expertise. They are they are very intuitive. You want to use it very, very quickly. So whenever you want to make something, you have a very short lead time to make your product. So so this is the benefit that attracts people. That's how we were able to address COVID pandemic with making, you know, commonly shared 3D printed face shields and goggles.

Giulia Barbareschi  10:41

Yeah. One of the things though, is that commonly, especially 3D printing is considered a good manufacturing technology for making small sort of on demand jobs or custom made products and parts. How do you think that can be made scalable?

Ram Chandra Thapa  11:11

Yes, you know, with with technology, 3D printing is amazing. But you know, it also has some drawbacks, like, it's time consuming, because it works on a layer wise deposition of material based on designs, which means it deposes very tiny, very thin layer of melted plastic or any raw material. And then it actually forms a physical model based on your design. But, you know, if you if you want to make something scalable, you either need many 3D printers, so hundreds of 3D printers at one place at the office. Within Zener's case, in my company's case, we only have five FDM 3D printers, which prints with plastic materials, and one SLA 3D printer. But you know, if you explore market, I found out from my very research that there are already you know, 150 plus 3D printers in Nepal. And we were I was, you know, I was I was able to bring together 20 plus makers with 40, plus 3D printers. And then this means if I was able to make one 3D printer face shield in two hours, with all these distributed machines, and distributor makers, I would be able to make, you know, 50 to 60 face shields in one hour, but this is only possible if everyone comes together. And this is the benefit with today's technology.

Giulia Barbareschi  12:50

I just really like this idea of of people coming together and becoming sort of a global force while at the same time remaining very local, within their own community. Do you think this need for localised and distributed manufacturing? Is it a particular thing that COVID-19 has created? Or do you think it will remain?

Ram Chandra Thapa  13:37

This is a one good result of COVID-19. But this is also a lesson to all of us, that the existing conventional supply chain doesn't take this (indistinguishable). So it is not permanent, it doesn't remain intact all time. You know, we saw when we have pandemic like this, all the countries around the world. Firstly, pandemic at the same time, which means there is disruption in supplies in everywhere, you know, Nepal, Nepal is a place where we inport around 80% of the supplies from India or China. This means there are very less manufacturers based locally. It's very easy to import stuff to Nepal than to manufacture it locally. But you know, this faceshield because there are only limited traders who are bringing it from China and India and even their source, it ran out of supplies, which means they wouldn't get you know, PPE anywhere. And in the you know, first phase of COVID wave in Nepal, a very simple face shield used to cost around eight to $10. This is not all about markets. People people always believe that they need to start something if there is market for it, but you know, since we are making face shields using 3D printers and other industrial processes will now we do manufacture face shileds using injection moulding, which means, you know, manufacturing over 1000 plus face shields a day. So, this doesn't mean we need to have a, you know, alter market, we can, once we invest in localised manufacturing process, we can harness the output anytime, like if there's another pandemic, we have the we have investment in infrastructure, local, local infrastructure, we have the technology available. This means we can manufacture things locally to address those issues brought by supplies chain. So yeah, I think I think this is a lesson that the pandemic has given to everyone. And this will obviously boost localised manufacturing ecosystem.

Giulia Barbareschi  15:56

Thank you so much for joining us Ram from the Nepalese company Zener Technologies. I think my favourite takeaway from this story has been to hear not only how Zener has been working hard to use technology to address supply chain short comings, but also to discover how bringing people together can help address the shortcomings of the 3D printing technology itself through a distributed manufacturing approach. What do you think about it, Ben?

Ben Oldfrey  16:29

Yeah, I think I mean, I think Zener  are an amazing example of a highly skilled team who developed this flexible production capacity that can be applied to many products. And this, this has meant that they you know, during COVID, they could quickly respond to the new demands of the pandemic, flexible, digital approach to making, you know, these new modes of production, they just got this great potential to democratise innovation. You don't need a large R&D team and the backing of a corporation to be making important innovations and new products for your local community. And that's that's very exciting in terms of seeing what people will be doing in the next decade or so.

Giulia Barbareschi  17:12

It's true, and on my part, I can't wait to see what Zener is going to do next. Although the Covid 19 pandemic is a new global challenge that has emerged in the last year, there are actually quite a few that I've been kicking around the park for a long time. In Uganda, the accessibility and affordability of glasses and eye testing for people who have reduced eye sight is an age old problem. Good quality glasses are often imported from Western countries, and are far too expensive for the majority of people who need them. Since 2017, Brenda Katwesigye, the CEO of Wazi Vision has been working to provide people in Uganda with high quality and stylish eyeglasses that are 80% cheaper than most important models. So Brenda, first of all, thank you so much for joining us.

Brenda Katwesigye  18:17

Thank you so much for having me, Giulia. I'm very excited to join you on this podcast, and I can't wait to dive into the session and and discuss more.

Giulia Barbareschi  18:28

We're very happy to have you as well. So can you tell me a little bit about how are the Wazi Vision glasses made? And what makes them different from the others?

Brenda Katwesigye  18:41

Right, so Wazi Vision glasses are made from waste. So we started out making them from plastic waste, and we were using plastic, we still are using plastic injection moulding method to make a very affordable eyeglasses from plastic waste, like PET, and HDPE. So then the reason that our glasses, you know, relatively more affordable, is because of the material that we use. It's inexpensive, it's easily accessible across the country. So that makes everything so much easier to get them.

Giulia Barbareschi  19:19

That's really interesting. How, how much does a pair of glasses cost usually in Uganda for a person who needs them? And how much does a pair of Wazi Vision glasses cost?

Brenda Katwesigye  19:36

So typically, on average, you find a pair of glasses costing about $150. And it can go all the way you know even higher than that I found a pair that cost $500. And quite frankly, if you look at the average Ugandan, they wouldn't be able to afford even if they saved their entire salary for six months. For some, you know a lot of Ugandans. So in comparison, when you look at the glasses that we have been selling, they've been going for $20, which is a huge saving, and they're still stylish, they're durable, they're light and very comfortable for most of our clients. So that's what really makes them different.

Giulia Barbareschi  20:20

That's amazing. And yeah, definitely important glasses don't seem to be any cheaper in Uganda that they are here. I'm very interested, though, when you were talking about stylish glasses, because a lot of time, I suppose people would complain that very cheap products tend to not look very good. So I was wondering if you could tell us a bit more about the design of these glasses.

Brenda Katwesigye  20:54

Yeah, so we we were very, we are very deliberate about because glasses are really not just, they're not just a medical, something that you use to treat yourself or anything, right. They're also for fashion. Because they're on your face, they're always in your face, you need to look good as you go about your day, because it's always in your face. And people see your face first, we're very deliberate about making them look good. And truthfully, our glasses, I wouldn't call them cheap, I'll call them affordable, it's very important that we differentiate between the cheap and the affordable. And I've seen some really cheap ones. And you're very right, you look at them, and you don't even think anybody would willingly wear them, especially if they could get something better. For us, we focused on creating something that people would want to wear, like regardless of whether they have a lot of money or not. And we have realised that you know, people like to play around, you know, with the round designs with triangular designs, the square designs. So what we did was to look at the imported versions of eyeglasses, what do they look like? Right? Which ones are people more comfortable wearing? When you look at the average Ugandan face, what does it look best in? Is it this style of glasses or this style of glasses? And then how do we make them very comfortable? How do we make sure that the nose bridge is comfortable and that it actually blends with the rest of the face? So the whole design process and the thought around the style. We looked at the comparatives, the things that are coming into the country, and we said, why not make something that looks good? So the first designs, as you can see, they don't look too different from the frames that have been coming into the country because we wanted an easy entry point that was stylish, that was already acceptable in the market, and still look good, to the average Ugandan to the average African. And I think that worked pretty well.

Giulia Barbareschi  23:02

It's your very right.  Face and so the way in which glasses affects one face and appearance, it's extremely important, that is not just about increasing vision. So do you do the design of your glasses in house? Or do you source the design from somewhere?

Brenda Katwesigye  23:27

So we we pay contractors, people that have a design background, but of course, the conceptualization of what it is it starts from the artistic point of view. So we will get an artist that truly just wants to explore, all right, and then we say, you know, think about this, look at these designs, and let's see where your mind takes you. And then the artists will draw. And you know, they, one of the artists who worked with actually said, Oh, this design was inspired by the eyes of an owl, right. And you can see the round design. And it matches very well with with the eyes of an owl and said this would look very nice on the more rounded faces. And then we got somebody else to translate that design into a computer design that then can be translated into a mould using a CNC machine. So that's how pretty much we come up with these designs.

Giulia Barbareschi  24:32

It sounds like an amazing creative journey. And I think it's really important because it It helps to showcase local creativity and artistry and craftsmanship. And I was wondering what do you think it's the best feature of this local model of manufacturing compared to the ones that it's based on importation of models.

Brenda Katwesigye  25:08

Em, actually local manufacturing. And I've also listened a lot to the Ugandan president but he's been speaking so much about local manufacturing and increasing that capacity within the country and now there is a drive in Uganda called by Uganda build Uganda, in support, and the government is backing locally produced products over imported products. As we speak, the taxation regime is now you know, slapping more and more taxes on imported products in favour of products that are produced at home. So if I make a computer in Uganda, there is justification for me to have to pay less taxes in comparison to the people that are importing those glasses. I mean, those are the items. For us, we are looking at, for instance, the commercial region, which is the common market for Eastern Central Africa, and that region alone is attractive, because the taxes are more cohesive. And it helps for us to be able to sell in neighbouring countries, and also building this kind of business in Uganda and promoting local manufacturing. It's also promoting local employment, and also knowledge transfer. So where instead of getting somebody in China to make us glasses and send them here, we are saying, okay, we will train a local resource. And then they can also learn and transfer that knowledge to somebody else. So then we build an ecosystem of manufacturers of people that are actually going to invest in this kind of infrastructure, and help the country grow and help the region and Africa at large to grow. So, and also COVID-19 really presented a crazy challenge, because we saw so many people just recently, a lot of people complaining, their containers have been stuck in Mombasa, they are not coming from China, because they they were used to importing glasses, they were used importing things. And now their consignments have been dropping in terms of you know how quickly they get here. So that's a huge opportunity for us to tap into that, and help these other people that are distributing glasses and other products to know that there is a local alternative.

Giulia Barbareschi  27:37

I think you're right. It's particularly important at a stage in history, where has been shown that sudden global event can overthrow established supply chain in the space of a few weeks. My last question for you. Do you think that your vision and the vision of Wazi can be scaled to ensure that people in Uganda who need glasses are able to access them?

Brenda Katwesigye  28:20

Yes, today, yeah, absolutely. Um, I really believe that we are onto something, and not just in Uganda, but all over Africa. This is a product that can scale. And we are actually working very closely with the team from the AT Impact Fund, and GDI Hub to guide this transition on a path to scale. We have already received so much support in terms of the venture building. So we have worked very closely with AT Impact Fund, we have worked closely with GDI Hub and capitalist fund to make sure that we are on a path to scale in terms of the manufacturing process, the distribution network and the distribution process, as well as how we tell our story, the branding and marketing aspect of the business. So they've helped us really, you know, define all that. And also given us financial support to put us on a path to scale across Africa. There's a very huge market, as I speak, for it might seem like a niche product, eyeglasses seem like a really niche product. But when you look at overall, it's huge. There's a very huge opportunity. So it's a small niche, but with a very huge potential for impact. And that's why I am really, really excited that we have the backing of the AT Impact Fund. And we also have venture support to take us on this journey on a path to scale. So I tell you, the vision is even stronger now. The opportunity is huge. The challenge has been written in stone, and we are ready to take it on. So I'm just very excited to see, you know how we can build the biggest brand out of Africa of eyewear.

Giulia Barbareschi  30:11

I have to say, I absolutely love Wazi Vision has been able to develop a manufacturing approach that touches on so many important aspects, not only creating glasses that are affordable, but also committing to use recycled plastic, and finding a way to showcase Ugandan craftsmanship. And what do you like about Wazi Vision, Ben?

Ben Oldfrey  30:36

Yes, I think you're absolutely right. It's It's so amazing. That Wazi's approach tackles so many key issues that we face today. I'm really keen as well on their, their, you know, the the way they're looking to incorporate Afro centric design into their ranges to accommodate the the needs and the wants of local consumers. So much of the products that we have available to us right now, you know, is on this assumption of this generic global consumer, which just isn't correct. Also, I really like that their manufacturing approach, not only lets them use recycled plastics, but lets them explore a range of locally available materials that some might be recycled, some might be biomaterials, some might be waste from a variety of other manufacturers. And it's going to be exciting to see what materials they use in their local area. And as they expand their operations into different locations, seeing what materials might be appropriate to those locations.

Giulia Barbareschi  31:50

Today, we had the opportunity to listen to the stories of two incredible innovators. The work of people at Zener and Wazi Vision shows that innovative manufacturing approaches can address challenges encountered both on the supply and the demand side of production. But many of these issues that Brenda and Ram are trying to tackle are not just specific to Nepal or Uganda, is that right, Ben?

Ben Oldfrey  32:21

Yeah, that's absolutely right. And it's really interesting, as we've been doing this work on local production, local solutions in seeing the same issues that hit different locations in different parts of the world. And while we're interested in, you know, making locally, that doesn't mean that you can't connect globally. For example, Zener have actually been helping another of the LPLS grantees, Safe Mothered Alliance with a product that they wanted. They really wanted some 3D printable umbilical cord-clamp designs, and Zener, along with Field Ready, and Frontier Tech Hub previously have developed such a thing for Nepal. And they've been in contact with Safe Motherhood Alliance in Zambia, and helping them to work through the designs. But it's not just about, it's not just the digital designs that need sharing. It's the experiential knowledge of the processes, both before and the post processing required for such a device to make it successful.

Giulia Barbareschi  33:25

So one of the main things that Innovation Action is is doing when, when working with Zener and Wazi Vision and an orders is to help them connect resources and scale this approaches do to maximise their their impact globally. But how do you actually do that?

Ben Oldfrey  33:49

Yeah, so a cool a core part of what Local Production Local Solutions is trying to do is to map local production capacities globally, so that anyone who wants to get anything made really can be able to see what production capacity is available in their local area. And an interesting aspect of this is that if you can see what capacity is available to you, then right at the design stage, you can have that as part of your thinking. And it's, and it's not just about mapping local production systems. It's about being able to see what other locations around the world have very similar challenges and very similar production capacities. And seeing what peer to peer learning can occur across these locations. We're working towards having workshops with a variety of different companies in different locations. And what's great about working with peers that are in a completely different country to you but working on parallel activities is they don't present, they're not competition to to you in the market. So you can have really, really enthusiastic and open sharing sessions because nobody's worried quite in the same way about how that is going to impact their business in their location.

Giulia Barbareschi  35:02

That's incredibly interesting. How has this idea of mapping emerged as a central theme for Innovation Action as a whole?

Ben Oldfrey  35:17

Yeah, well, outside of the map of production, we're also really interested in mapping a variety of other sectors and activities. Because we believe that, you know, both within development work and academic work, lots of data gets lost, you know, as you come towards the end of projects. But if we could be pulling this data, and collecting new data in the process, and being able to understand different sectors, overlaying them on to a set of maps, that we can interrogate in different ways, we'll be able to see the relationships between different sectors in ways that we wouldn't be able to see otherwise, without that visual element.

Giulia Barbareschi  35:54

This is such an inspiring work. And I think the more people would join in, and pool their data with Innovation Action, the bigger chance for impact. That would be, which is ultimately what most of these initiatives are about. Thank you so much, Ben, it was great to hear about how Innovation Action is working to help connect this brilliant local initiatives into a global network of people and resources that can be leveraged to address the needs of people who are often left behind by mainstream approaches. I really hope listeners will check out the app on the website, Innovation Thank you so much for listening, everybody. This was the first episode of the Innovation Action Insight, a space where we share stories of innovations and innovators working to address global challenges for social good. In the next episode, we'll take a closer look at one of the biggest challenges of 2020: the Covid 19 pandemic. Hope to see you all soon.