Episode 5 - Innovation Action Insights podcast

Giulia Barbareschi  00:09

Hi, everyone, and welcome to our fifth 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 researchers and entrepreneurs who are working on innovative strategies to develop and deliver assistive technologies for people with disabilities living in East Africa and around the world. In this episode, we will explore how materials can play a central role in the creation of new health care products that address pressing global needs, are environmentally sustainable, and locally produced. Understanding the properties of both new and existing materials is becoming more and more a key element in addressing many of the global challenges facing the world, from promoting advances in manufacturing methods, to increasing the availability of products, to finding and harnessing new sources of energy to combat climate change. Many of the areas of research for scientists and engineers around the world revolve around the importance of understanding the possibilities that different materials offer. Scientists enterpreneurs and innovators in Africa have been working tirelessly to understand how to best leverage the materials available in their own ecosystem to tackle some of the major challenges affecting their communities. From water shortages, access to electricity and availability of locally made good quality clothing. In this episode, we'll hear stories from two guests, telling us how they have been able to creatively leverage the properties of naturally available materials to address challenges related to maternal health care and sanitation in Zambia, and Kenya.  The delivery of appropriate women and maternal care, it's extremely challenging in many of the sub Saharan countries. Zambian women face several challenges throughout their reproductive life cycles through menstruation, pregnancy, postpartum and breastfeeding, often when they feel most vulnerable, which negatively affect their ability to make informed decisions for themselves and their babies. Maternal mortality is still 50 times higher in Sub Saharan Africa than in other regions of the world, and many young girls are still excluded from society during menstruation due to lack of access to sanitary pads. Today, we have here Muzalema Mwanza, funder of the Safe Motherhood Alliance in Zambia, an organisation dedicated to ensure better access to health care for Zambian women, talking about some of the innovative maternal approaches they're leveraging to increase access to basic health care products. Hi, Muzalema. Thank you so much for joining us here today.

Muzalema Mwanza  04:12

Hi, Giulia. Thank you so much for having me.

Giulia Barbareschi  04:16

Something about one of the key activities of the Safe Motherhood Alliance is to produce and provide women who need them with these baby delivery kits that can help them have safer pregnancy and childbirth. Can you tell us a little bit more about what they are and why are they so important?

Muzalema Mwanza  04:36

To give you an answer I'll have to take you back to 2017 when I was pregnant myself with my first child, and I found out that women in Zambia had to provide their own birth materials to give birth in a public hospital. They had to provide their own sanitary pads, their own scalpel blade, umbilical cord clamp, delivery mat, and another list of items, which it was very difficult for me to find and was so expensive. And the more I researched into this problem, the more I realised that a lot of women were excluded from accessing adequate health care, because they just didn't have access to, you know, sterile products. And, you know, due to the broken healthcare system in Zambia, women, you know, they happen to find themselves in labour and about to give birth and go to a public hospital, they would either be sent back to look for these items, or they to wait, and their partner or one of the family members would have to look for them. And it just seemed very absurd, you know, to me that, in that vulnerable position of, you know, you're in labour, and I was a first time mother, and having the headache of trying to find all these items in, in one place, it just seemed really preposterous to me. So that's when the idea of, you know, putting together a kit, which has all these items came to me. So I'm a civil engineer. That's my background, doing it for 15 years, both in public and private sector. So, you know, really, the whole essence around Safe Mother Alliance is trying to ensure that we are creating safe spaces for pregnant women to deliver in. Zambia has one of the highest mortality rates in the region, with 63% of all births happening outside of the health facility, due to some of the issues have highlighted. So really, our goal is to reach you know, zero deaths that can be avoided in the next 10 years.

Giulia Barbareschi  06:31

It sounds like an incredibly important and also, as you said, a problem that hits women when they are at their most vulnerable.  I imagine that the Covid 19 pandemic has probably also introduced additional challenges to the provision of maternal care in Zambia. Has this impacted the work that you do at the Safe Motherhood Alliance in in any way?

Muzalema Mwanza  07:02

So, um, during the onset of COVID-19, what we saw, you know, was a disruption in global supply chains. Now, Zambia, you know, we are primarily a trading country, we, our manufacturing base is still developing, you know, 100% of the products in the kits are imported. So that's when we realised when you couldn't access some of the materials that were, you know, were required, such as, you know, sanitary pads, disinfectant, you know, even face masks, is, when we realised that COVID was a was going to be going to have bigger repercussions during, you know, the coming years, because then maternal health care services will also be disrupted, hospitals and clinics, you know, would chase women away; they would not get access to their monthly antenatal visits where they could access vaccinations and other health information. Now, if you're talking to a woman, you know, who comes from a low income community, or in a rural area where we do most of our work, this exacerbates the situation even more, because not only now we should be forced to look for alternatives, you know, in accessing health care, she's also made to pay extra in terms of transportation to get to another facility, and a whole other host of problems. You know, so what we what we decided to do as a as an organisation was try and manufacture some of the items that we realised we just could not access or if we could, were very expensive, because they're being hoarded. And some of the items that we decided to manufacture were sanitary pads, and I'll touch more on that later. And also 3D printed masks. And some of these innovations really have come around the need and the challenge that we see in the next coming months, weeks years, with the onset of COVID.

Giulia Barbareschi  08:52

Yeah, this is very true, especially has you mentioned, considering the disruptions in supply chains that we've seen everywhere throughout the Covid 19 pandemic, but especially in countries that are so dependent on import. And, of course, one of the biggest challenges in in relation, as you mentioned, to the products contained in the baby delivery kit, is materials. Have you been exploring possibility offered by materials that are available locally?

Muzalema Mwanza  09:32

Yes, we actually, you know, realised when we couldn't access some of the materials that we needed to package the kits, that we had to do something and something quickly. So what we hit upon was trying to manufacture some of the items in the kit ourselves locally. So what we did was, you know, women when they're about to give birth, they are given a list of items to come with at a hospital like I'd mentioned, and there are several items on this list. So what we do with the kit is we take that list and package all those items in one kit, making it more convenient, and reduce the cost of that kit buy buying leveraging, you know, negotiations with manufacturers to be able to ensure that we're not passing on that huge cost to this pregnant vulnerable woman. And we mainly work in underserved communities that lack adequate health care services. So what we did was, you know, we took we took apart that, that list and look at what was the most expensive item for us to be able to source and these were sanitary pads. And, you know, we import these directly from outside of Zambia, overseas, Asian and European countries. And, you know, when we broke apart the pad, we realise, really that, you know, this is something we could actually manufacture locally using local materials. And that became, you know, began our journey of looking at what cost effective ways could we do this without needing expensive machinery, or expend, you know, really high upfront operational costs. So we looked around for materials that could be used locally. And cotton is one of the most common materials to be used, you know, in manufacturing sanitary pads. But what we realised was cotton was very expensive to process, even though it's, you know, grown readily here in Zambia. And the second product that we came upon was, you know, banana fibre. So Zambia, you know, we're in a tropical climate. So we have huge plantations here in Zambia, and most of the banana trunks are left in the field to rot, after the bananas have been harvested. And, you know, looking at that material, banana fibre is one of the most absorbent materials on the planet, it literally locks in fluids, you know, in its absorbent core. So, you know, we did a little more research to see, you know, how are we able to do this locally, to ensure that we're doing it, you know, in a sterilised environment. And also, you know, using machinery that was low cost, because we knew once expenses started going up, then obviously, the cost will be passed on to the very women that we're trying to serve. So we do so right now we are, you know, in the process of importing our, you know, first semi mechanised machinery to be able to manufacture banana sanitary pads. Previous previously, you've been doing it by hand, which proved that the product is effective, but it just took us very long to be able to, you know, make it in the quantities that we need. And after testing it with the local authorities here in Zambia, which is ZABS, which is your equivalent of FDA, we were given the green light to be able to mass produce them, which is, you know, something we're very excited about, because then this means we'll be able to produce the sanitary pads not only for pregnant women, but also you know, for adults and girls who we know, you know, have challenges when it's, you know, when they're menstruating to be able to access sterile pads, so most of them either skip school, or they use alternatives which are very dangerous, ranging from you know, the, the bark of a tree trunks to dirty rags and materials, and you know, bringing up a whole host of problems for them, which in future even affects the whole reproduction journey. So we are really touching on the whole reproductive cycle of a woman's journey through not only adolescence, but into womanhood and motherhood as well. And you know, this is the essence of who we are as Safe Motherhood Alliance.

Giulia Barbareschi  13:38

This is amazing at so many levels, that is hard for me to capture it in in one sentence. I was, first of all blown away by the fact that you described something that it's so commonplace in so many places around the world, like sanitary pads, as the most expensive piece of equipment in your baby delivery kit, but also your attention to leveraging resources that are already present in nature. This approach clearly has so much potential, do you think it has the ability to scale up also beyond Zambia in the future maybe?

Muzalema Mwanza  14:32

No, definitely. And that's a you know, a great question, Giulia, because when you look at sanitary pads, they have not been you know, there's been no innovation to them in the last eighty years. So what we have is, you know, materials that have been used, that are difficult to you know, to decompose, some taking, you know, between 100 to 500 years in the soil and not because they can't they're not biodegradable, so, what we're looking at is how do we ensure that the manufacturing process is not only environmentally friendly by using, you know, biodegradable materials, but also that it does not cause harm to the environment in the long run. What we've seen in the past years is disposal of sanitary pads has been something that's been very challenging in, you know, almost 90% of the countries. You know, they're either burnt or thrown away in a dump site, and we know with burning comes air pollution, and with a dump site, especially in developing countries, you find that you know, they land they end up in landfills or even in you know, causing blockages in rivers and streams. So, the effects really are, you know, cause a ripple effect in the environment especially, but by using materials such as banana fibre, which is biodegradable and decomposes in, you know, six months, if properly treated, we realise that this is something that actually should be scaled up into other countries. Because, you know, feminine hygiene is a worldwide issue, we share the you know, we share the planet, 50% of people on the planet are female. So really, it means that their issues should be something that we should all be looking at to try to adjust, and feminine hygiene. menstrual hygiene is something that is prevalent, and has not really been addressed adequately. So we are hoping with what we're doing, we'll be able to, you know, partner with other organisations, not only in Zambia, but you know, around Africa and even other parts of the world, to look at what other materials can be used to make sanitary pads, and also look at materials that can be biodegradable, so that we're not causing harm to the environment, by putting materials in the soil that can't disintegrate. And you know, some of the things that we're looking at is what is the, you know, what product can be used? After, you know, decomposing, is there anything that can be done with the remains, and this is something we're also, you know, researching locally as an organisation was one of the universities to look at even, you know, making fertiliser out of it. And this is one of the products that can be made out of this, this product. So we're really excited about that about digging in deep and looking at what other areas can can we touch on, especially because sanitary pads are very expensive. So we don't have any, you know, import exemptions. As a country and most African countries, actually, sanitary pads are taxed, which is what makes them very expensive, they cost anywhere between, you know, three to $5, a pack, one pack of 10 pads, right? For a woman who's earning, you know, a family with earning less than $1 a day, this is very expensive. So the alternatives they use are very dangerous to their health, they cause all sorts of problems, their reproductive systems, this is something which are hoping, you know, once we're able to scale up, we will be able to curb and you know, ensure that there are degradable products, our you know, our mainstream and you know, Safe Motherhood Alliance, may be the one of pioneers in this in this area. But definitely, we do not want to be the last as you know, we are looking at, you know how we're able to help other organisations in other countries by looking at what materials do they have, abundantly so that they're not having to pay extra, you know, monies to get these resources, but look at what is locally available to them in their own countries.

Giulia Barbareschi  18:41

Thanks to Muzalema Mwanza for sharing with us the story of the amazing work of the Safe Motherhood Alliance. I'm genuinely blown away by the mission, the dedication and the creativity of this organisation. I absolutely love how they're taking such a holistic approach that not only focuses on childbirth, but looks at the different phases of women reproductive life cycles. What did you like about them, Ben?

Ben Oldfrey  19:08

Yeah, I think what's so great here is just the combination of ways that Safe Motherhood Alliance of have tackled making what's needed, you know, the use of digital fabrication, you know, to be able to locally make the umbilical cord clips and the PPE. That's you know, that's that's great. But you know, also this use of natural local materials for making the biodegradable sanitary pads with the banana tree trunk fibre, and I think that is just looking at the different ways that you can solve these problems locally for what you need.

Giulia Barbareschi  19:49

In the last year, alcohol based hand sanitizer became one of the most in demand products across the world as government and health organisations both locally and then internationally, highlighted the importance of cleaning one's hands frequently to prevent the spread of Covid 19. The Centre for Innovation, Science and Technology East Africa Industries Limited, or CIST Africa, already had significant expertise in using local materials to produce bio fuel products that they provide to their communities for the use in cooking stoves. When they saw the demand for hand sanitizer increased throughout the pandemic, they looked at potential new sources of ethanol and came up with an incredibly innovative solution. Richard Arwa founder and CEO of CIST Africa is here with us today to talk about how by harnessing a free floating plant present on Lake Victoria, they have been able to catch the proverbial two birds with one stone.  Hi, Richard is great to have you here with us.

Richard Arwa  20:58

Thank you so much for the time, happy to be here.

Giulia Barbareschi  21:03

Richared, 2009, you founded CIST Africa with the aim of leveraging value materials to produce fuels for cooking and other resources for Kenyan families. Can you tell us a little bit more about your work? And why is it important?

Arwa Richard  21:23

Thank you. My name is Arwa Richard and I'm the managing director and founder of CIST Africa, which is the biotechnology based here in Kisumu in Kenya. So in 2009, we discovered the potential of using water hyacinth to produce the ethanol. We did that at the laboratories level, it took us some time to find the best way to extract this product from water hyacinth. So with time, we managed to do that. And we obtained some good quality product, which we took to the laboratory, I've tested these parameters of quality and found that it contains very quality ethanol. But because it was not very pure, we decided to use it for a cooking product. So at CIST Africa, we manufacture 94% ethanol, which initially we used to blend as a cooking fuel. And with the emergence of COVID-19, we diversified and used part of our ethanol, for hand sanitizer.

Giulia Barbareschi  22:30

That's really interesting. So in this last year, you have developed this new way to produce hand sanitizer from this local free floating plant. How could you come about it exactly, in in choosing that particular material? And why is it such a key innovation?

Arwa Richard  22:55

Basically, ethanol production worldwide is done using the edible food crops like the corn and sugarcane. And this brings a lot of competition with the foods sector, you use the material which is meant for food. And also you need a very large chunk of soil to grow these raw materials for ethanol production. Now water hyacinth is a free floating leave in Lake Victoria, and it is abundant. And it causes havoc to those who use the lake. So I'm a chemistry teacher. And in Kenya, there is a project called science and engineering fair, the way a group of students and teacher come up with some innovative projects which they present up to national level. So while working with my students in the laboratory, we discovered that water hyacinth has potential for producing ethanol. So as we present, we are presenting our project from one level to another, we will get the comments from judges. And when we come back to school, we will work on those comments and the project further. We did that up to national level. And then there was a call from the government National Environment Trust Fund. They wanted innovative products for upscaling and commercialization. So we did an application to National Environment Trust grant Real Innovation Award Scheme, and they selected our innovation to be part of the incubation programme. So there is where we learned a lot of the commercial aspects of the business. And that is how we produce even our first product which we tested in the market before we bought the machines to produce the small scale. So that's how we started and I think the technology we use is simple and very much efficient because it converts nearly the whole stem.

Giulia Barbareschi  25:00

So this is incredibly interesting. And I'm also particularly keen on on understanding more about what you were saying in terms of this water hyacinth that you use to produce the hand sanitizer, it's generally considered more of a problem than a resource by many is that correct?

Arwa Richard  25:25

Yes, water hyacinth is a problem, more of a problem than a resource, because it floats on the water, the thereby denying the fishermen access to fishing points and landing beaches, so they stay long with the fish trapped in the boats. And these (indistinguishable) fall on fishing industry in Lake Victoria is the only economic living livelihood for many people around the lake. This will grow very fast. And when it rots, it also deteriorates the quality of water, it consumes a lot of oxygen. So I can say water hyacinth has a lot of economic problem, ecological problem, and they make more environmental and social problem than the good. So when we discovered a way of converting this water hyacinth into a useful resource used by the local community, we kill two birds with one stone, we are providing sanitizer, high quality sanitizer, we are providing clean cooking energy, whereby we are solving the energy poverty in the local community, and we are helping in eradicating water hyacinth. So we have come up with an innovative way of converting unused and useless weed into an economically benefiting product.

Giulia Barbareschi  26:57

It's truly impressive. And yeah, as you see your solution manages to tackle so many different problems at one. It's it's really exciting. One question that I have for you is, is water hyacinth available all year round? Or do you have to look at different sorts of solutions depending on the seasons.

Arwa Richard  27:23

I can say that water hyacinth has been is very abundant in Lake Victoria. But it is a seasonal plant, sometimes the wind blows it to extreme beaches, and it becomes out of reach for CIST Africa. But we have come up with field crops. We have collaborations with research institutions, including Mussina University, Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute , KILDI, hand we are experimenting with alternative field crops, we have planted several varieties of tropical sugar beet. And the results we've got is quite good. Also we'll try to use also this sort of stems the cassava, and the result is overwhelming. So currently, when we are out of reach for water hyacinth, we resort to use molasses, which is used by local sugarcane industries, to supplement the water hyacinth. But one thing the water hyacinth has is a lot of sugar; we convert the cellulose into sugar and we get plenty of it. So the yield we get from the hyacinth is quite high compared to the yield that we get from these alternative materials.

Giulia Barbareschi  28:39

It's very interesting. And it's it's great to see how you've enabled defined set of alternative solutions, depending on what your resources are about scalability. Actually, do you think that this way of of producing ethanol for sanitizer, could it be applied to other regions beyond Kenya?

Arwa Richard  29:09

Yes, sure. The sanitizer product is a global demand. Globally, everybody now needs sanitizer. So ethanol is is a hot selling product right now. And the scalability, this project can be scaled anywhere in the world. And I've been getting a lot of contact from different countries where water hyacinth is plentiful, causing similar problems that again, I receive calls from Nepal, from India, from Japan, Zimbabwe, and even river Nile. So I receive a lot of calls from people interested to know what we're doing in CIST Africa so that they can also implement similar projects in their countries. It's very much practical, it can be scaled up anywhere where the sources of raw material exists. And we are free to share our expertise in terms of business. All that so that the sanitizers can be available to people it is in demand is saving lives.

Giulia Barbareschi  30:19

Thank you to Richard Arwa from CIST Africa.  I have to say, I'm really excited by how CIST Africa has been able to combine two challenges together to actually create a new opportunity. I think this is how some of the most impactful innovations actually emerge. What you think about it, Ben?

Ben Oldfrey  30:39

Yes, seeing opportunities, and taking them for the betterment of their communities, exactly what CIST has just been so amazing at doing, you know, reacting to the changes in the market as they come, you know, the making biofuel cooking, they also make the cooking stoves that use them. And then so quickly, you know, being able to switch to what's needed in the sanitizer, all the while addressing this issue of this invasive weed on the lake. I think what's key is that they'll be able to switch their model back, you know, if the demand for the sanitizer reduces. And this kind of adaptable business model is exactly what's needed in response to these kind of sudden, just unexpected occurrences like the COVID pandemic, you know, this, you know, things like this is going to happen again in the future. And if people can quickly switch and innovate, they'll just be able to provide to their community.

Giulia Barbareschi  31:39

Today, we heard two brilliant stories from African entrepreneurs who are harnessing new materials for tackling healthcare challenges affecting local and international communities. I think one of the aspects that fascinates me the most is how innovators have been able to look at nature, and how to use existing resources to tackle global issues with materials that are already present in their communities. What are your thoughts about that, Ben?

Ben Oldfrey  32:10

Yeah, I mean, one of the major things that we've seen during COVID is this big problem of global logistics. And, you know, it's really shown how rigid and inflexible these long international supply chains are. And often, it's the bottom of the pyramid that comes out worse. Environmental groups, you know, these, they've been talking about the impact of them for a while. But people they didn't want to change. And it might be now that we start to because we're seeing, it's a problem on so many fronts, that we need to start making things locally. And a major part of this is using what is near. So I'm really excited to see sort of the development of this as we go forward, and more of these kind of innovations coming through.

Giulia Barbareschi  32:51

I absolutely agree with you there. And I think it's amazing how many of the innovations we saw today and in previous episodes are so focused on local resources and approaches. But I suppose that the natural question that emerges there is what about scalability? How do you think we can ensure that these local solution can be scaled and applied in different contexts?

Ben Oldfrey  33:20

Yeah, it's a great question. And well, you know, firstly, I think certainly just context is paramount. And building solutions that are specific to the context is exactly what needs to happen, you know, what resources are available for that particular environment, that particular community, for example, Safe Motherhood Alliance aren't the only company doing biodegradable sanitary products globally. You know, they're the only ones in Zambia, but different companies in different places in the world, you know, they use different materials, depending on where they are. Banana tree, fibre is just what's abundantly available in this case. So I think so important is just starting with contexts, the ecosystem, you know, that you have in place and designing a solution for it, not the other way around?

Giulia Barbareschi  34:05

I think there is a lot of wisdom in what you say. And I do agree with you on the fact that, especially in the last year has taught us a lot about how local set of small scale approaches might be sometimes better than then the bigger one. I got one last question for you. I know that materials are one of your passions, Ben. So what do you think are the most exciting new developments and contributions that you believe material science can make to ensure that we tackle global challenges?

Ben Oldfrey  34:45

Yeah, I mean, gosh, they're just there's so many exciting things happening from materials development. You know, as we've seen here, and you know, more widely just with natural materials being applied across the board. But I'd say I say plastic, you know, it's still, it's still, of course, just this major concern for so many reasons. And we're so dependent on oil based plastics still, you know, the current recycling methods, they're only really a stopgap a lot of the time, you know, mechanical recycling, you know, melting stuff down and reforming it, it just degrades the quality over time for most of these plastics, not all not all cases. But you know, what you can make is reduced in quality. So, really, you know, we need a solution to that, and there are things coming through, I mean, those monomer recycling techniques that are that are looking to scale in the next five to 10 years, you know, these are things that they break, break the plastics down fully, and spit out the other side what is essentially virgin oil. Again, you know, this is, this is where we get to the point with these materials, that it's it is really, truly circular, rather than what is essentially a spiral right now. I mean, that is still, for some reasons would be would be bioplastics. I mean, actually, I mean, PLA, which is the most popular 3D printing filament for prototyping, I mean, it's actually already a bioplastic. And there is roots to be able to break that down, you do need industrial processes. A lot of these products that claim to be compostable, for example, aren't really, UCLA is doing some really exciting work on that. And they do, you know, there's issues of bio plastics that come in, they bring new challenges, you know, competing for crop space with food. It's the same problem with bio plastics as for biofuels, and this sort of sourcing as of, of the correct crops is, is not the easy solution to answer. I think the other thing, just to mention, I say, I'm really excited about just not just the base material, but the structures that we can make with them. You know, 3D printing is opening such exciting geometries, and these what we call metamaterials, these add this element to what we can make that just it's simply not possible before, you know, like, people are printing these complex lattices at the nano scale, crazy work like that, that's going on that, you know, opens up these ability for, you know, the ability for us to, to mimic nature, in a way that we've only really toyed with so far. You know, once you kind of pair that with a broader range of, of more naturally more sort of biocompatible materials, we've can really start to work with nature and re engage with it and not stand apart from it, which is what we've been doing for some time.

Giulia Barbareschi  37:32

Thank you so much. But it was great to hear about your expertise not only on the amazing innovations that we see today already, but also the ones that we do hope to see in the future. I invite the listeners to check out the podcast page of the website innovation action.org, where they will be able to find the links provided by our guests to access more information about the safe motherhood Alliance and CIST Africa. Thank you so much for listening to this fifth episode of the innovation action insights, a space where we share stories of innovations and innovators working to address global challenges for social good. Okay, folks, this is our last episode of the series. We would love to hear your feedback on this five episodes, and any suggestion that you have for future series, or themes that you would like us to cover in any upcoming episodes. Thank you so much for sticking with us all the way through this first series of Innovation Action Insights and we hope to be back with you soon.