Episode 4 - Innovation Action Insights podcast

Giulia Barbareschi  00:10

Hi, everyone, and welcome to our fourth episode of Innovation Action Insights a space where we share stories of amazing innovations and innovators. We're 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. This podcast is brought to you by the Innovation Action collaborative initiative, led by the Global Disability Innovation Hub, and funded by UKaid through the AT2030 and the COVIDAction programmes. 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 spark and grow innovations that make a real impact on the lives of people that live in less resource settings. In our last episode, we spoke with two incredible African ventures who have developed innovative circular economy approaches to tackle challenges related to environmental sustainability, but also bring in value to their local communities. In this episode, we will zoom in on East Africa, with guests walking us through the development of new assistive devices for individuals with visual impairments, and how they use network analysis to create cohesive and resilient national systems that are able to provide people with disabilities with the assistive technologies that they need. People with disabilities represent the world's largest minority. According to global estimates from the World Health Organisation and the World Bank, there are over 1 billion people with disabilities in the world, nearly one in seven. As the global population ages, this number grows and the expectation is that it will double by 2050. Assistive technologies are powerful tools that people with disabilities leverage to extend their capabilities, complete everyday tasks, access better opportunities in their communities, and ultimately live life on their own terms. Unfortunately, the majority of people who need assistive technologies do not get access to them. In the global south, it is estimated that over 80% of people with disabilities are unable to get the assistive technology they need, because these devices are too costly, unavailable in their communities, and suitable to their context, or sometimes because they yet have to be invented. In this episode, we'll hear how a Kenyan startup has been developing new devices that support independent mobility for blind users, and how a group of researchers is using data analysis methods normally applied  to social media to create more resilient assistive technology delivery systems in Kenya and Malawi. Sight is often one of the main senses we rely on when moving around different environments in our everyday lives. Blind and partially sighted people learn to develop new skills and strategies that allow them to move independently,  both indoors and outdoors, often rely on white canes that they use to detect obstacles and safely navigate the environment. However, white canes cannot detect high obstacles, they can easily break, especially in rough environment, and make navigation a cumbersome experience that requires the person's constant and full attention. Today, we have here Brian Menda, the CEO of Hope Tech Plus, a Kenyan startup working on a new line of mobility devices for visually impaired users that leverage ultrasound waves to help users navigate safely and smoothly. Hi, Brian, thank you so much for joining us here today.

Brian Menda  04:38

Hi, thank you for having me. I'm very excited to share the work that we do at Hope Tech Plus to make the lives of visually impaired people better.

Giulia Barbareschi  04:47

Brian, the flagship product of Hope Tech Plus is the Fourth Eye, a handheld device that uses sound waves to help visually impaired users that detect obstacles and move around safey. Can you tell us a bit about how it works?

Brian Menda  05:06

Yes, so the Fourth Eye device was created to overcome the challenges that come with just using the white cane. For example, when you're just using the white cane, you are limited in terms of the range of obstacle detected, because you can only tap just a few steps ahead of you. And getting information about something which is maybe slightly more ahead is very useful for walking. And also the white cane cannot detect anything about the knee level. Any obstacle, which is slightly raised, someone who's visually impaired using the white cane will collide with it. So the Fourth Eye device was created to counter those two challenges. And it works through echo-location, which is basically sound waves. The same way bats and  dolphins detect obstacles. So it sends out a sound pulse. And then, depending on how far the obstacle is, it will alert the user through vibrations. All someone has to do is switch the device on and point it to where it is going. And then once it picks out obstacles, it will be vibrating to warn the user.

Giulia Barbareschi  06:12

That sounds like a really cool device. I have also heard that you are about to launch a new product called the Sixth Sense. And the principles on which this new product is based are similar, but it does have new features and capabilities. What would be its been upgrades.

Brian Menda  06:34

Yes, so Iat Hope Tech, we've always been, I think sort of obsessed with, like solving the problem of mobility for visually impaired people. And it was very exciting for us to work with many partners even to bring the Fourth Eye device to the Kenyan market. And the uptake has been so good that people love it. But we we want to go beyond that and create something that can be used by any visually impaired person, anywhere in the world. So the sixth sense, we are creating it as a wearable device, the device now completely replaces the need for using a white cane. And it doesn't take like much use of your hands. So when using the white cane, your hand is fully occupied. But now the sixth sense is fully wearable is a device that you mount on the chest level. And then we're using some computer processing to image the environment in front of the user. And then we're still using haptics as the feedback to the user. So these are basically vibration. So for different obstacles, you will have different vibrations. So once I use that, the wearer wears the sixth sense and is walking down the street, they'll just be getting different vibrations for different obstacles, and they can navigate very easily on depending on the message they received.

Giulia Barbareschi  07:53

That's super cool. So the vibrations that you get, are they different patterns for different types of obstacles? Or are they located differently on different places on this chest belt, I suppose that the users will be wearing,

Brian Menda  08:11

Yes, so actually, it's a combination of both, we want to include two bracelets as feedback, just to increase the quality of feedback that they use receives, the user will receive vibrations from the device, which is monitored by the chest level itself, and then also through to bracelets. So the three will just communicate to give someone a very rich experience of the environment around them. So the more information that someone can get on what's happening around them, the easier it is for them to navigate. So we're trying to, at the same time not overwhelm someone with so many messages, but then give them the important messages of especially the obstacles that they may collide with as they walk. But also just a feeling and experience of understanding what is around you as you're walking down the street.

Giulia Barbareschi  09:03

I have to say I can't wait to try it. I'll pick up one thing that you mentioned earlier in terms of one thing to expand your user base from Kenya and East Africa, where your current user base for the Fourth Eye is, but you're planning to reach users all over the globe. Now, urban environments can change significantly across countries. Do you think that affect the way people use both the Fourth Eye or the Sixth Sense? And has that motivated your innovative journey in any way?

Brian Menda  09:44

I think that very many differences are in different places. And we really can't say that we are creating something that can be used by someone anywhere in the world. So we were creating like a standard just a basic guideline for what is needed by someone who's visually impaired in any part of the world just to navigate. And then beyond that, we're going to like tweek the device a little to accommodate different cultures, just to accommodate people are built differently in different places, because this is our wearable device. So we have to accommodate for that. And then there's also the different climatic conditions in different places. So the device has to be weatherproof. And these are things that we've been learning as we innovate. So we expect to impact people from different countries that we are working with. So these are small groups that we send prototypes to, they can test them out, and then give us feedback. Because we really believe in the process of co-creation with the end user, who is the visually impaired person, so we are involving them in this process as much as we possibly can. And I think are they, the final result that will deliver to the market will be truly something that will be able to solve this challenge of mobility for visually impaired people. And visually impaired, visual impairment is not a Kenyan problem. And it's something that the problem of mobility for visually impaired person is something that is experienced in all countries in the world, because everyone has, most of them have access to just a white cane for moving around. So we strongly believe that this product can benefit anyone who's a visually impaired person, anywhere. We have a strategy to scale the Sixth Sense to many countries in the world, we have a plan that we will be shipping globally. So you can even order from a centralised location, and then we can ship it to you. Because it will be sort of a plug and play product that someone can easily use and easily land anywhere in the wild.

Giulia Barbareschi  11:49

Thanks, this is really fascinating.  I was going to ask you an additional question on it. In assistive technologies where the connection between the person and the device, it's so important, I imagined context plays a very big role. When thinking about adapting the Sixth Sense to different contexts, what is the thing that you find most challenging,

Brian Menda  12:18

Something that we've been struggling with ever since we started this product development with the sixth sense is, like half of the users that we've almost half of the users that we've tested with, they want to retain that anonymity, they just want to blend in the crowds. And they don't want someone to identify them as visually impaired. Currently, these people live and choose not to use their white cane, because they feel like this is a symbol that shows everyone I am visually impaired. And they don't like that kind of attention on them. But then there's also this other group that wants to be identified by some by people as they walk down the street that are visually impaired, that maybe they need you to move out of the way or just create some room for them to walk. That's that's the conflict that we've been struggling with. We're trying to make the device as discreet as possible, but then maybe someone will bump into something on the street. And then other people are wondering, why is this person working very in a very weird way. And there's no symbol to show that these people are visually impaired. So it's something that we're still working on, whether to make it as discreet as possible, or whether we can have some identifying features that when you see someone walking down the street with a device, you can easily tell this is someone who is visually impaired and if they need any assistance you can offer.

Giulia Barbareschi  13:37

Yeah, I think this is really interesting because it shows that tension between the advantages and disadvantages of disclosure in these situations. Over the last couple of years, I know you have worked with extensively with the AT2030 programme, in multiple occasions from being part of the first cohort of entrepreneurs in the Innovate Now accelerator to more recently working with some MSC students from the Disability Design and Innovation Programme. Can you tell us a little bit more about these collaborations?

Brian Menda  14:20

Yes, so we were part of the first cohort for the Innovate Now programme, which was in our in person training held in Kenya by GDI  Hub and in collaboration with AMREF in Kenya. It was basically an experience that really helped us. I think the main thing that we learned from that was like how to put the customer at the centre of innovation and how to extract the right amount of information from someone to solve the need. Because when you when you talk to someone who who is who has a problem, they may have so many ideas of how they want it and sometimes someone doesn't really even know what they want. So the process of like extracting the actual problem and creating a solution for that is like very critical. And the programme really taught us how to dive deep into understanding the problem of visually impaired people into constantly innovating and getting feedback and involving them in the entire product development process. So it was, I think, extremely useful for us, especially at the stage we're in. So we joined when we're just starting this project for Sixth Sense, this new global device. And so far, most of the things that you're putting into practice are things that we learned from the programme. So that was extremely useful for us. And also in terms of networking, meeting other innovators working with assistive technology, I think that really exposed us to what other people are doing, how they're doing it, and improve, that really improved even our own process itself. And also working with the MSc students.  And that was more of us sharing our journey, our process and also getting some ideas from them.  Our Minister reached out after to even give some input of how we can do something better. And it was, I think, very useful for us. So sometimes when you just share your idea, and you just share what you're working on, it also helps you to think or come up with a solution maybe for something that you hadn't thought about. So the entire process of just sharing what you've been working on and having to receive this feedback was, I think something that personally I was very happy to be part of. And I'm hoping the students will, will really use the knowledge, they got to go out there and create a lot of assistive technology. Thanks to Brian Mendola for telling us about the exciting new technologies that Hope Tech Plus has been working on. I think what I particularly like about Brian's story is that is the perfect example of a reverse innovative product that has been initially developed to address the needs of users in the global south, but as a huge potential to scale worldwide. What is your view about that, then?

Ben Oldfrey  17:13

Yeah, I think it's really exciting to see these high tech solutions come through like this. And I think it's important to highlight the distinction here between, you know, when we talk about high, medium and low income countries, and the difference in low resource settings, you know, in the USA, for example, which is clearly a high income country, it doesn't have much of a public health service at all. Um, for a lot of people living in southern states, they just don't have access to much help so tech products through these different lenses is great. And inequality stats in many countries suggests, you know, frugal innovation's just going to become more and more important, for the better or worse, and so yeah, really exciting.

Giulia Barbareschi  17:56

When we talk about assistive technologies, we tend to primarily focus on the physical and digital devices that are used by millions of people with disabilities across the world. However, these devices are only a small part of the equation, as assistive technology is an umbrella term that encompasses not only the actual products, but also the network of service provision that actually makes it possible for people to access the devices. The provision of assistive devices is often a complex, multi step process that involves different actors, from manufacturers to governments, clinics, and other organisations. Understanding how this network works is essential to be able to coordinate actions and formulate effective policies that ensure that assistive technologies are actually delivered to the people who need them. Emma Smith, postdoctoral research fellow at the Assisted Living and Learning Institute at maynooth University is here with us today to talk about how her group has been working with governments in Kenya and Malawi, to map the existing net of assistive technology service provision in both countries and what they have learned from their experience. Hi, Emma, it's great to have you here with us.

Emma Smith  19:14

Hi, Giulia, it's great to be here with you.

Giulia Barbareschi  19:17

As part of your research in the AT2030 programme, you have been working to map AT  providers and stakeholders in both Kenya and Malawi. Can you tell us a little bit more about these projects?

Emma Smith  19:30

Yeah, I'd love to. So what we're doing is we're actually doing a process that comes out of social media analysis. So we're co opting it a bit to develop some evidence for policy, where we're actually looking at the network of stakeholders in both Kenya and Malawi. And we're actually gonna be doing this in other countries as well, to to look at who the key stakeholders are in the country, and how they're related to one another. So what those relationships are between each other. And the reason we're doing that is because it gives us a sense of the general ecosystem that works in the area of assistive technology, but also how closely each of those organisations are related and how well they work together. So we're really able to get a sense of who all the players are, how they work together and what they do.

Giulia Barbareschi  20:15

That's a really interesting type of analysis. Can I ask you, how do you find all the relevant providers and stakeholders, which are probably scattered across the country? And how do you map the connections between them?

Emma Smith  20:30

Yeah, that's a great question. And I think this really speaks to the importance of the local partnerships that we have, and the fact that we're not doing this research in isolation. So in both Kenya and Malawi, and maybe I'll speak specifically to Malawi first, but in both Kenya and Malawi, we have people on the ground who are in those countries who live in those countries who work there on a day to day basis, who have a good understanding of who those critical players are. But more importantly, we have a larger team. So we're getting input from various different actors and individuals who each have their own set of knowledge around who those stakeholders are. So really, what we do is we go to that team. So in the case of Malawi, we have a research group that's made up of stakeholders from across the country and different organisations, we create a list with them, we go back to them and ask if we're missing anybody, make sure that all of those key players are included, make sure that we ask everybody who we need to, to make sure that the list is complete. And we work from that list. And so we're doing the same thing in Kenya as well, working with a variety of stakeholders in the country who really understand their own networks, to identify who the key players are and who we need to talk to.

Giulia Barbareschi  21:35

That seems like a very participatory process that you do in order to be able to find all the different actors in the countries.  Once you have found them, how do you grade, let's say, the relationships that linked them to one another?

Emma Smith  21:55

Sure. I think this is we're kind of making it up as we go along in some senses, but we're also drawing on previous research that others have done. So really, what we're looking at is the strength of their relationship and how much they work together. So we've essentially set up a grade of what relationships might look like. So basically, from awareness. So yeah, I'm aware of that organisation, but I don't actually work with them on a day to day basis, all the way through to full collaboration, which is we share similar goals, we work together on a regular basis, and we work together on projects, and we have grades in between, so that they can self identify. And what we do is we ask every organisation to rate their relationship with every other organisation in the country. So that we're able to get a sense of what those relationships look like, across all stakeholders. And because we have each of the organisations reading each other, we're also able to see if there's a difference. So say, one organisation says, Yes, we're collaborating with that other organisation. And that other organisation comes back to us and says, we're aware of them. But we don't really have any relationship, then we know that there's a mismatch in terms of the communication or the understanding of what that collaboration looks like. And we can go back and dig into it. But for the most part, people are answering the way they should be or the way that we would expect where we're getting the same responses on both sides of the coin.

Giulia Barbareschi  23:14

That's quite interesting. And it's fascinating how you can discover where there is this mismatch in communication. And I would assume that has implications then in practice of how well people are able to work with each other across various organisations. But why is it so important to create this network maps? Does it help governments in formulating more effective policies? And ultimately, how does he help bringing assistive technologies to the people who need them?

Emma Smith  23:53

Yeah, we started it in Malawi first, because we knew that there were a variety of players. And we needed to understand who was really central to that provision. So when we were looking at developing policy, it was important to understand who was trusted within the network. So who had existing relationships that were trusted by other organisations, who was going to be able to communicate most effectively across organisational barriers, we want to be able to provide that information back to the government to say, here are your central players, here are the people that you really should be engaging to make sure that you're having good communication and good collaboration across all of the players. So one of the great things about these network maps is it allows us to say this is a key player and maybe they're a key player because they have lots of connections. More importantly, they may have lots of connections to other organisations who also have further connections. So really, they become central to the map, and that's one of the things we're looking for is this idea of centrality. How much are you in the centre of the map in terms of your collaborations with other organisations. The other piece we really were interested in knowing was the organisations we expected to have centrality. So for example, a ministry or a key ministry within the government, you would expect to be somewhat central to the provision, in many cases weren't actually central to the network. So that means that they've got some work to do in terms of making themselves more central. Or they need to be divesting some of the work that they're doing to those more central organisations, who may have more capacity to distribute the information, or the programmes or whatever it is that they're doing throughout the country. So really, it's about finding those key actors, making sure that we're able to identify them, but also seeing where some of those links don't exist, where they really should, so that those can be strengthened. So it's both about identifying the strengths within the network, but also identifying all of the opportunities where a network could be strengthened further, to make sure that we're getting really good coverage of assistive technology throughout the country, and that we're making sure we make use of all of that expertise that already exists without having to reinvent the wheel.

Giulia Barbareschi  25:54

It sounds like incredibly important work, especially because my understanding is that you need to strike that sort of a balance between centrality of services, but also having a reach for this as wide as possible. So people that live in more marginalised communities as well, don't get left behind.

Emma Smith  26:22

Yeah, and I think this is where it's really important that we have representation of people who have disabilities and assistive technology users in that conversation. So one of the things that was really important to us doing this work was that we engage the organisations of persons with disabilities in each of those countries as part of this network mapping exercise, because in many cases, they are the people who have a direct link to those individuals in the community who likely need access to assistive technology. And if they are not part of that network. And if those communication lines aren't established, then that's something that we need to identify and something we need to work on. So very much for us, it's about identifying where that strength is or where that strength needs to be, and then working on it. Rather than doing this as an evaluation that would be punitive in some way. It's really about being able to identify the strengths and work on it further.

Giulia Barbareschi  27:12

Yeah, I really, I really like that approach in terms of trying to work on on strength and trying to boost I suppose, a network of observer and provision rather than than punishing for what might be its its shortcomings. I was wondering if you could share a little bit of insights about the specific countries like, how does the situation differ between Kenya and Malawi? And what implications does this have then a policy level?

Emma Smith  27:49

Yeah, absolutely. So we're earlier on in our Kenya work, though, and further along in the Malawi work, but what I can give you is impressions of what I see so far. They are wildly different positions in terms of their overall development as countries. And I think that that underscores all of the differences in many ways. You have more established networks of organisations of persons with disabilities in Kenya than you do in Malawi. Although, in Malawi, some of those networks are quite strong. They're just, there's not quite as many of them, you also have a more established government system within Kenya, who is directing what they're doing in a different way. So obviously, that's going to impact things. But then you also just have a sheer difference in volume. So Kenya has a huge number of organisations that are working in this space in comparison to Malawi. So it adds to the complexity of the network. And that can be good and bad. So in Malawi, because of the relative simplicity of the network, and the lower number of players, it's actually a little bit easier to identify where those connections are, and then to work. And so I think that comment you made about sort of centrality, but also needing to get to the broader reaches. In some ways, that's easier when you have a smaller group, because you have fewer people that you have to play with. It's the cooks in the kitchen kind of idea. Whereas in Kenya, you have so many more organisations, but also so much more local innovation happening, and so many more companies that are in this space, that it does add to the complexity of it. Of course, complexity can also be a great thing in terms of you have all of those extra opportunities for impact. So I think it impacts how you look at policy in terms of in Malawi, it's really about how do we make use of what we have? And how do we identify those players that we can strengthen them to, to do more with what we with what they currently have, or to give them more resources in order to allow them to expand their scope. Whereas in Kenya, what we're what I'm expecting that we're going to see is how do we allow communication and collaboration between the network players so that we're not looking at the too many cooks issue where we're really able to bring them together and direct them everyone can be directed in a singular focus or a similar focus to achieve the same aim.

Giulia Barbareschi  30:05

Thank you to Emma Smith from Maynooth University. I have to say, I am really fascinated by the potential of using this network analysis approach to identify how this web of service providers work or don't work with each other, and identify opportunities for improvement so that people can actually access the assistive technology they need. What do you think about it, Ben?

Ben Oldfrey  30:32

Yeah, I think these kinds of analyses are just so exciting. And showing things in the system that are just not apparent before and, you know, allows you to make intelligent decisions based on real knowledge of the system, and see where the actual gaps are. I think it's also interesting in that it allows comparisons between different settings, different regions, that wouldn't be possible without this kind of framework. So in all, yeah, I think this kind of systems thinking is just so valuable.

Giulia Barbareschi  31:04

Today, we heard about the amazing work that enterpreneurs and researchers are doing to ensure that more people with disabilities in East Africa and around the world have access to assistive technologies that match their needs. I think one of the key takeaway for me in this episode is how important context is when it comes to assistive technology, both in terms of the environmental context in which new mobility devices deployed, but also the context of an entire country in which this network of assistive technology providers operate. What are your thoughts about that? Ben?

Ben Oldfrey  31:42

Yeah, I mean, I think that lack of contextual information is often what means, you know, the ultimate failure of many products that are brought to market, unfortunately, and there's such, there's such limited funds available in the development of what's needed. But often, you know, often we see something that seems like a wonderful innovation, and it is a wonderful innovation. But if the context or system approach is wrong, then then it fails. And it doesn't continue, it doesn't get taken to somewhere that maybe it could have flourished, you know, it could have flourished with a slightly different approach at some point along the chain. But it but it doesn't make it and that's that's a real shame.

Giulia Barbareschi  32:18

I think what transpired from both stories is how both the provision of existing assistive technologies and the development of new ones are ultimately, as you say, complex processes that require collaborations between different actors working in different spaces to make sure that everything worked along that chain that you were talking about. Would you agree with that?

Ben Oldfrey  32:45

Yeah, I would. And I think it's, it's really exciting to see how these mappings of the AT sector and beyond could mean better engagement with other with other sectors outside of AT that are highly synergistic with it. And making sense of how those connections could work. And we're very interested at Innovation Action, to start making these links, linking up the, you know, the AT community with different producers in the region that we're making sense of, so the AT can be made locally. And you know, improving that whole value chain, to be better connected with the actual users themselves. You know, if we can better utilise existing economies around things like repair and maintenance, for example. But you know, linked up with the specialist knowledge networks that Emma has been describing, we can hopefully build the services that could be available, but you know, building them organically based on what's already present in the region.

Giulia Barbareschi  33:38

I think what comes out of this discussion of this episode, and also like the work of Innovation Action, is that there is some sort of tension between innovations in terms of new products, but delivery on the other side, how do you think we strike a balance between creating new and innovative in this case, assistive technologies, but also ensuring that everyone gets access to the assistive devices which are already available?

Ben Oldfrey  34:12

Yeah, I mean, that's, that's where developing understanding of the bigger picture, which is what Emma's work is contributing to at the system's level comes in, I think. You know, AT provision is very much not about one product or product set, there's a huge range of products that's needed to adequately provide for the disabled community. And making sense of of how that provision is done, it's just it's not an easy task. But all of this sense making will contribute to where you know where appropriate funds and efforts should go.

Giulia Barbareschi  34:44

I think I'll definitely agree with you there. So once again, thank you so much, Ben for such an insightful technical commentary. It was brilliant to hear about how this new technologies and innovative research methods can help develop and deliver assistive technologies to the millions of people with disabilities who currently do not have access to them. I invite the listeners to check out the podcast page on the website InnovationAction.org where they'd be able to find links provided by our guests to access more information about Hope Tech Plus and the Assistive Technology Network mapping exercise carried out as part of the AT 2030 programme. Thank you so much for listening to this fourth episode of Innovation Action Insights, a space where we share stories of innovations and innovators working to address global challenges for social good. In the next episode, we'll talk about how entrepreneurs in the global south are leveraging new materials produce innovative, cheaper and more sustainable health care products.