Malawi Design Studios: Poly & MUST provide locally sourced PPE & technologies to respond to COVID-19

Written by: Theresa Mkandawire, Address Malata and Will Moyo

We are three women professionals in Malawi, Africa, who oversee university-level invention education. Our universities are home to two engineering design studios—a relatively new concept here that supports hands-on design and innovation by our students.

When COVID-19 began, we and our design studio teams asked: How do we help? What can we contribute to Malawi? What can our innovators develop locally to help Malawi respond to and prepare for this pandemic?

As a small, land-locked country, Malawi imports most things. Now with COVID-19-related travel and import restrictions, Malawi’s solutions for personal protection equipment and other technologies for the fight against COVID-19 must be locally sourced.

Local Malawi creativity and innovation has a home in our design studios at the University of Malawi – The Polytechnic (Poly) and Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST). Our studios provide local university students and faculty with access to 3D printers, laser cutters, supplies, and resources required to help them innovate, design, prototype and deploy new technologies—a revolutionary way to engage students in engineering through hands-on development. The studios are modeled after the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, founded by our partner university, Rice University, in Houston, Texas, and supported by The Lemelson Foundation.

While our design studios predate COVID-19, they are proving their worth during these times, as they play a critical role for biomedical engineering support for Malawi.

Our design studios again provided the environment needed to innovate and prototype. The space provided our teams a place to question, discover, and innovate about what designs can work here.

Theresa Mkandawire, PhD

Associate Professor, University of Malawi

The Designs

Prototyping PPE. Before the first cases of the virus were confirmed here in early April 2020, we started working at the studios on personal protective equipment (PPE) prototypes based on open source designs. Our students and studio staff asked questions about how to best make face shields? How do we improve the designs? Can they be made without or with less of the 3D printing resources, which are scarce in Malawi?

We consulted with clinicians at our partner hospitals to improve the practicality of the designs. Where the original open source designs were a good start, our teams were able to make improvements based on clinician feedback. These new designs are both practical and in demand. The information about the face shields went far, and our design studios have been getting increasing orders for them. We have to date supplied about 6000 face shields to development organizations and hospitals, like Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. We continue to be contacted by government officials and international organizations, including the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), to make them.

Ventilators. Next we started looking at ventilators, because they would be needed for the acute respiratory distress syndrome experienced by COVID patients. There are very few ventilators currently available in Malawi.

Our design studio assembled a team of lecturers to discuss ventilator designs suitable for Malawi’s environment: devices that can withstand low power, be made and repaired with local materials, thereby removing obstacles of delivery and sustainability. We looked at sourcing materials from existing machines in our environment, such as coffee makers and other appliances. Our design studios again provided the environment needed to innovate and prototype. The space provided our teams a place to question, discover, and innovate about what designs can work here.

Our studios have developed two ventilator designs. MUST has developed a version of Rice University’s Apollo ventilator with adaptations to the environment and materials available in Malawi. Poly is working on another ventilator design that uses a solenoid valve system and a bottle of water for the positive pressure—an idea adapted from our work with the Pumani bubble CPAP, a device within the Newborn Essential Solutions & Technologies (NEST) bundle. This design allows the clinician to adjust tidal volume, respiratory rate and positive pressure and breathing rate. We are working closely with local clinician partners to continually improve the device.

Infection Prevention. Our clinician partners also identified infection prevention as another key component to COVID response efforts. The teams at our universities created no-touch handwashing stations where the soap and water are dispensed using solenoids that sense your presence. This unit has a capacity to be used by 2,000 people. Refilling the station is also touchless through a valve. On May 13, 2020, a handwashing station and face shields designed by our team were donated to Thyolo District Hospital.

The teams have addressed ultra-violet light (UV) disinfection units and are developing a mobile unit for places without a physical room available for UV disinfection of PPE. We have most recently installed a UV Germicidal Irradiation System at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. This facility will go a long way in disinfecting PPE for the hospital. This work is in collaboration with Dr. Rebekah Drezek and Jackson Coole of Rice University.

The amount of collaboration with Rice University students and faculty members during this time has made an incredible difference. Dr Andi Gobin has worked to connect us with individuals who have enhanced our work as well as grant opportunities to support our efforts. Dr. Doug Sanyahumbi has worked tirelessly from connecting us with stakeholders and assisting us in project scoping for this crisis.

Our students also designed their own disinfection unit. The portable unit is a walk-through booth where a fine mist of fluid decontaminates an individual. Once the person has been decontaminated, he or she exits the booth and then puts on a face mask to further reduce spread of germs.

Another design from the studios is a door opening device that can be used to open a door handle without having to touch it; this is a simple, yet useful device being created at the studios.

Biological Samples. Our design studios have created a prototype for portable solar-powered coolers for samples and vaccines and other supplies–anything that needs to be stored at low temperatures. It relies on solar power, because only 30% of Malawi is on the electrical grid.

Our teams have also developed a way to transport samples a few miles without contact. A sample drone is planned to carry samples about four miles from the testing site. This effort is led by a student that attended the MUST-sponsored drone academy.

Surveillance. As cases of COVID-19 increased in Malawi, we started to ask how our communities can effectively contact trace. Designers settled on using a mobile application where users enter his/her phone number into the system for tracking. With this system, for example, a quarantined person’s phone can be tracked to understand that person’s movement. Phones can also alert users if they enter an area that has cases, so users can modify their behavior. It provides a survey resource to assess whether or not you are at risk for having COVID. The app also includes a portal for general information about COVID.

Community Response

Relationships Expand. The Ministry of Health and Ministry of Labor, Skills and Innovation became aware of the COVID-related work at the design studios and have been incredibly supportive. They have connected us with UNDP and UNICEF. Heads of state are connecting us with industry to take our designs from prototypes to commercialization and larger manufacturing. We have met with the deputy director of Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital and many clinicians to work on improving designs. The studios are a hub where real solutions are growing.

Harry Gombachicka, Chief Executive Officer for Malawi Telecommunications and Chairperson of the Polytechnic Industry Advisory Board, is helping find industries who can support the efforts to produce the interventions. The Ministry of Labor, Skills and Innovation is also helping connect us with industry. We are grateful to the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Industry and Commerce, which is also trying to find the right channels for mass production in Malawi.

Many of these relationships are new. We see them as a silver lining in all of this. We have been able to gain attention for the creative problem-solving abilities at home here in Malawi—solutions that expand well beyond this pandemic.

Supportive Partnerships. We are proud and grateful for support our efforts have received. Our students and staff deserve the recognition for their creativity and tireless work to help their country. The ministries are being incredibly helpful to us. They are looking for where support can be developed. We would also like to thank donors who help us with these efforts by supplying materials and other support.

Meeting the Need

Procurement of materials is a challenge. The 3D printers and laser printers that we have are not enough or heavy duty enough to meet our expanding projects. We need filament, human resources, upkeep, and transportation—and funding to meet these challenges.

We have been asked to submit our needs as a proposal to the UN. The Ministry of Labor has also visited and asked us to submit our needs to them. We expect these stakeholders and others to help support us with upscaling.

We are working to find the best way to certify our products. We are participating in discussions with the Malawi Bureau of Standards to see what can be done.

Promise Fulfilled in the Face of COVID

When our design studios were first planned, we knew they would empower our students and our community. We have hosted competitions, open houses, and industry exchanges with great success and enthusiasm. Invention education leads students to experiences in solving local problems, drawing on their powers of innovation and creativity. Visitors to the studios are drawn to the spirit of the possible that they foster.

COVID-19 accelerated our timelines and adjusted our current plans, but the fundamental purpose of the Malawi design studios remains unchanged: to put the tools of change into the brilliant hands and minds of our students, so that innovation can take root.

There are many contributions that the studios can make in Malawi, and we are proud to watch them meet the challenges we are facing right now. We know that this is just the beginning.

Innovation partnerships | Olusola Oke, University of Ibadan

Innovation partnerships | Olusola Oke, University of Ibadan

Olusola Oke is a NEST360 Invention Education team member and the Design Studio Assistant Manager at the University of Ibadan (UI) in Nigeria. Mr. Oke visited the United States in October 2022 as part of a bidirectional exchange program to meet his colleagues at Rice360 Institute for Global Health Technologies (Rice360) and NEST360. While in the United States, Mr. Oke shared his insights on fostering innovation capacity through the UI design studio, presenting at conferences in San Antonio, Texas, and Seattle, Washington, and providing a guest lecture at Rice University. He shared the following reflections after his engagement in the bidirectional exchange program.