As Kenya prepares for a rise in novel coronavirus (Covid-19) cases, 3D printing companies are designing and printing personal protective equipment (PPEs) and parts for medical devices to address the expected medical equipment deficit in the country.
Ultra Red Technologies, along with a coalition of other Kenyan-owned 3D printers, has borrowed from open source prototypes designed by 3DVerkstan, a company in Sweden, to print plastic face shields to fill a gap before established plastic manufacturers can create a mould and begin producing quickly at affordable prices.
The Nairobi-based Ultra Red has also designed a 3D printed prototype for a ventilator adaptor that could allow doctors to treat either two or four patients at one time if necessary, working with established medical equipment distributor, Nairobi X-Ray Supplies, to administer testing on sets of artificial lungs. Other 3D companies working on the effort include Kijenzi based in Kisumu in Western Kenya. Kuunda 3D in Nairobi has also shifted its focus to personal protective equipment.
3D printing of high-end medical equipment is on the rise in Africa. In Uganda, the Comprehensive Rehabilitations Services hospital worked with a consortium of Canadian organizations to trial 3D printing of prosthetic limbs for amputees. Rather than being cast with plaster in the traditional way, this pilot digitally scanned and modeled the limbs before sending them for production, which appears to have produced better fitting limbs at a quarter of the usual production time
Despite Kenya’s lead in digital technology on the continent, its nascent 3D printing industry is relatively small compared to those in other African countries, such as South Africa.
Like other Sub Saharan Africa countries, Kenya’s health system is at risk of being easily overwhelmed if the East African country sees a steep rise in coronavirus cases. As well as insufficient medical staff, there is a shortage of equipment often because many countries rely on imports or donations from outside the country. But while “just in time” 3D printing can help Kenya fill some temporary gaps in its medical supplies deficit, experts caution against touting 3D printing as a perfect solution that can override industrialization hurdles in the country.
“I hesitate to say [3D printing in Kenya] will leapfrog to any industrialization,” said Dr. Aleksandra Gadzala, head of research at The Singularity Group and an expert in 3D printing in Africa. “Kenya can do 3D printing. The question is…. Is it just a short term stopgap?…Or is it scalable?”
Gadzala warns that there can often be a tendency to overemphasize the power of technological solutions without considering the wider context in which these technologies operate. To grow its budding 3D printing landscape into a full-fledged industry, Kenya must also develop regulations and quality checks, along with an enabling ecosystem of startups, innovation hubs, and partnerships that can foster growth in the long-term.
As of April 15, Kenya stands at 255 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 10 deaths, and the numbers are rising. In the short term, 3D printing is a homegrown solution to Kenya’s challenge of lack of Covid-19 PPE and medical equipment. Many of the 3D printers stepping up to support the Covid-19 response are founded and run by Kenyans.
“We’ve got the largest 3D printing capacity in the country and we’re able to quickly prototype,” said Mehul Shah, founder and CEO of Ultra Red. “So the way that we looked at helping out was to see what are the quick things that we can do… in terms of missing production.”