Why We Need to Think Greater of 3D Printing in Africa

In the continent of Africa, in the land of Kenya, is a home-grown 3D printing company by the name AB3D.

African Born 3D Printing (AB3D) is the first 3D printing enterprise in Africa designed to deliver high quality 3D printers, custom 3D print jobs, and 3D printing technology education. AB3D designs and manufactures 3D printers using recycled electronic waste, locally sourced hardware, and open source software systems.

But first …

Roy’s Story

AB3D was a vision that came to life at the hands of its founder, Roy Ombatti.

Roy Ombatti is young man of age 27, who comes from a middle class background. His parents struggled to take him through his education. In the early 2000’s Kenyans underwent severe retrenchments which mainly affected the average middle class people.

Roy therefore appreciated his education a little more than many of his peers, and knew at an early age that he wanted to get into engineering because he was fond of creating using the laws of physics. He also did well in mathematics.

He may not have been in the worst of situations, but his own struggles defined his desire to become a person who brought about positive change in the community through his work. At that time, he only had the ambition but did not know how he would do it.

After high school, he qualified to get a place at the University of Nairobi, whose history dates back to 1956. While waiting to begin his higher education in Mechanical Engineering, Roy got a chance to visit Malawi as a volunteer with an NGO his uncle worked for. The organization worked with children who were HIV positive and orphaned by the same.

“I interacted with the children and we developed a bond. The next day I would come to hear that they had died. It was a traumatic experience,” explained Roy.

Having witnessed the famished health system of Malawi, and a fate that applies to several other countries around the continent, Roy felt personally responsible to be a driver of change.

His time to return home, to Kenya, had equally arrived and he commenced his undergraduate studies.

In the meantime, Roy was keeping an eye open for the problems in his own community to find what he could offer. He discovered that many Kenyan children from underprivileged backgrounds suffered from diseases which were curable and caused by environmental hazards (lack of clean water, mosquito nets etc) but resources to do so were unavailable.

Simultaneously, at the university, an opportunity for an international 3D printing contest arose – 3D4D (3D for Development) Challenge hosted by TechforTrade.

Roy decided that he would design custom made 3D printed shoes for deformed feet. His project was inspired by the prevalence of children who developed deformed feet because of jiggers. He called this project ‘Happy Feet’.

Jiggers are fleas that can burrow so deep into one’s skin that they must sometimes be removed by cutting into the feet with a scalpel. The feet get swollen and disfigured.

Sharing scalpels, knives or pins to remove the jiggers puts them at further risk of transmitting and/ or acquiring HIV. If they did not have shoes, they could get infested with jiggers again.

To realise ‘Happy Feet’, Roy needed easy and affordable access to 3D printers. At the time this was not the case. To this day, despite the growth and scale of the technology, it still remains somewhat unreachable to many in Kenya due to the pricing of the machines. It became apparent to Roy that to bring his Happy Feet vision to fruition, he needed to solve the challenge of creating easy access to 3D printers and 3D printing technology, guided by his passion about the technology and its potential to change people’s lives. He then pivoted and shifted focus onto this new challenge; to fast forward, he fortunately got funding to set up his company and thus AB3D was born.

Roy figured that the first step was to build a 3D printer at home. This entailed using materials that are locally available, and therefore making the 3D printer something that is accessible to community at an affordable cost, something easy to obtain and maintain with locally accessible parts.

3D printers use less energy than that of a refrigerator. They also often use recycled electronic and plastic waste. “The use of plastic is not a hazard, it actually solves the problem of waste by recycling plastic to make the filament used to print items in 3D; items which are needed in the community,” Roy explained, adding that …

for as long as we use petroleum products, we will always have plastic as a by-product; for now, the best thing to do is to find positive uses for it.

Statistics have well shown that one of the main reasons of extinction threats and environmental degradation is pollution caused by plastic.

Over 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean each year. With this trend, it is estimated that by 2050 the ocean will contain a higher weight of plastic to sea life ratio.

The Strategy

The idea is to implement  3D Printing in schools so that the future generation of workers can begin thinking of technology as a way to solve community problems rather than to create them. At the same time, this would increase their employability and entrepreneurship skills because they can acquire the necessary technology-based skills for the jobs of the future. They can also learn to think like innovators.

But even more crucial is the ability to apply 3D for hands-on learning of their school curricular. “I think if we had less theory and more practical education, even in our Kenyan universities, we would have more people graduating with real skills, more people able to create inventions that solve global problems,” Roy said. He explained that many graduates left university with theoretical knowledge that they were then not able to transfer for the skills needed in the job market.

Three schools in Kenya have purchased the printers: Makini Schools, Banda School and Nova Academies. Universities include University of Gondar in Ethiopia and Bristol University in the UK. Other educational institutions such as the Tunapanda Institute, Sote ICT and Computer for Schools Kenya have also purchased his machines.

Unfortunately, there is slightly more appreciation for AB3D’s vision abroad than there is within the continent. Kenya is still a bit skeptical about the technology. The young people are on it but the previous generation, who are primarily the decision makers with the purchasing power, are still stuck in the old way of thinking. They need a nudge to get them on board. However, those who have seen it, believe and accept it.

3D printing technology has the capability of being applied in just about every industry.

AB3D is currently printing microscopes for the health and education sector, prostheses for those in need and of course, the Happy Feet shoes. “Those are the initiatives that are community driven. But we are looking for more like these where we can help people directly,” explained Roy, adding that it is up to AB3D to position themselves more proactively and people will get to learn of them and become more receptive to the technology.

*The story was translated to Italian and published in the April Issue of the Missioni Consolata Magazine. Roy is an alumni of the Consolata Primary School in Nairobi. 

Website: http://www.ab3d.co.ke/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/africanborn3dprinting/?ref=py_c

Twitter handle: @AB3Dprinting

Email: info@ab3d.co.ke or ab3d_ke@gmail.com

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