By: Frank Oyosa

Thumbnail Photo Courtesy of 1EEE Spectrum

Like any other national adversity, the outbreak of Covid-19, brought forth the spirit of innovation and invention by various stakeholders within the country in collaborative efforts to at least decrease the diverse effects of the pandemic. In this spirit, when the government through the ministry of health expressed concern that the country is in dire need of ventilators, the spirit of local innovation was awakened triggering professional bodies as well as university students to put their best foot forward to manufacture this vital lifesaving equipment. Among these, were 16 Kenyatta University students from various schools who a few months later, their diligent efforts bore fruits upon the unveiling of the first-ever student assembled ventilator prototype in the country and probably across East and Central Africa. 

Like a newborn baby, the unveiling of Tiba Vent as they called it was received with enthusiasm and congratulatory messages flowing left, right, and center. And as it would be expected, the government was not left behind in applauding the contribution of local stakeholders such as these for their efforts to be part of the solution. Precisely put, it appeared like the health sector’s plight had just been resolved, at least with the government promising not only their hundred percent support to the students but also to procure the machines once they were ready for the market. Of course, this was a huge motivation to many other innovators who were determined to help save humanity that indeed their input can be acknowledged and appreciated. 

The students from medicine, pharmacy, nursing, electrical and mechanical engineering together with their lecturers had hoped to see the equipment in the hospitals within few months. Unfortunately, what this team of optimistic scholars, tutors, and the citizens were not told was that they would have to wait a little longer to see the precious machine in action. One would expect that seeing the attention with which the news was received and the desperate state in which the health sector was in at the moment, the certification process of the Tiba Vent prototype would be expedited for it and its forthcoming brothers to start saving lives. On the contrary, 1 year down the line, the ventilator remains unattended to at the approval stage gathering dust in its lifeless state within four walls of the university maternity lab where it was born. 

Coming at a time when there were only 270 ICU beds with few having ventilators, against the surging number of emergency Covid-19 cases, it is quite a puzzle that such an effective and affordable locally manufactured lifesaving machine would take that long to be approved. And to think that the students had already guaranteed a full-fledged production unit capable of producing 50 ventilators a week! What more would the government wish for? Furthermore, it is to be remembered that the doctors did confirm the capabilities of the ventilator, and the Kenya Bureau of Standard (KEBS) affirming this. All that remained was certification by the Pharmacy and Poisons board. Why would they take their sweet time on this process that doesn’t sound too complex?

The Tiba Vent Ventilator prototype Photo Courtesy of KU GIS Lab

Another reason why this process ought to have been hastened is the time and financial implication it takes to import a ventilator. On a rough estimate, importing one such equipment into the country would mean several months of waiting and a budget of between 2.5 to 5 million Kenya shillings. Compare that with the time it would take for a 500,000 Kenya shillings alternative machine being produced in quantities of 50 a week to be transported from Kenyatta University to hospitals across the country. Doesn’t this raise some curiosity? Of course, it does!

Could it be that we Kenyans just never learn or there is something deeper than that? This country has had a history of egocentric bureaucrats, and it is difficult not to imagine that the delay might be a result of self-centered individuals who want to reap big and stuff money into their pockets through corrupt deals. But then again, there is the nightmare that is double standards! You cannot be encouraging local innovations on one hand and the other hand, you are allowing the bureaucracy to hinder these innovations from serving their purpose. The CS for industrialization is on record stating that after the heights of the pandemic, Kenyans should continue to embrace the spirit of innovation. But with such things happening, how are these innovators to be encouraged? 

The students explaining how the ventilator works Photo Courtesy of People Daily

Let us for once think about all the students and young professionals who had been inspired by the invention of this ventilator, only to learn that 1 year down the line nothing much has come out of it. And the delay is not from the inventors but the entity tasked with licensing the equipment. I wonder what could be going through their mind at the moment. Since several other entities had tried their hand in the manufacture of this machine but backed out due to its complexity, the least the government could do was to appreciate the efforts of this team by having the product out as first as possible. Even if they do not earn from it, their hearts will be at peace by virtue that their efforts are saving lives. 

Now the vaccine is here with us and as is our nature, we are already throwing tantrums “What is wrong with our researchers? Can’t they get into those lab coats and give us local vaccine!” Of course, most of us don’t trust what is coming from outside, and it is not that we cannot produce ours. But let us pause for a moment and think about it. If certifying a ventilator can take up to 1 year or even more, won’t the vaccine be approved when we are dealing with an alien invasion! Well, it is understandable that the ventilator and even the vaccine are both extremely delicate lifesavers that balance between life and death, but it is often said that extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. I bet the MOH relates with this quite well. Can we for once then stop acting normally as the Kenyan Government and fast-track the approval of such vital equipment.

All said and done, the country is staring at more deadly impacts of the Covid-19 third wave having already cost us more than 50 lives within 1 month. The press briefings are back again, the lockdowns are already in effect…again and the economy does not seem like it will favor the Wanjiku any time soon. With this third wave becoming more dangerous, ferocious, and fatal, it allows the concerned parties to redeem themselves and demonstrate that indeed they not only appreciate the efforts of the student and academic institutions in the area of research but are also committed to supporting local approaches by Kenyans to save Kenyans. 

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