Tag Archives: Technology

Just Crystal and the Impossible Trifecta

I co-founded this organization named Voices of Africa Foundation. VOA has been the love of my life for the past 10 years, so I recently stopped to ask myself…

If I was to re-design my organization what would it look like and who would I be. You see, I am a writer by nature. Words flow from my fingers to the keyboard with the greatest of ease, when I am comfortable, and in the flow. However, recently the only flow my fingers were responding to were the influx of applications and grants to write to be able to justify the existence and impact of my life’s work.

Applications after application flow into my inbox each requiring days, if not weeks, of work in terms of answering questions, planning budgets, and writing programs. Including how they would be monitored and evaluated in 2 years before you even begin. No two proposals are ever the same and the time commitment is serious for a small organization.

Thankfully, the rest of our Voices of Africa team and are partners are wonderful and for the most part do a fantastic job at making sure we meet our collective goals. However as I am billed “the writer” of the group, I end up carrying the lions share of forcing myself to answer sometimes hundreds of questions and days of preparation only to be rejected. You may now be asking yourself, “Why do you torture yourself like this Crystal?” And I would not think it impolite or odd in the slightest. I am torturing myself because I founded this organization with a vision, mission, and a cause. The grey streaks from my temples are well earned from keeping an impossible dream alive sometimes by blood, sweat, and tears alone.

Voices of Africa Foundation’s mission is to empower impoverished women and youth to improve their communities sustainablely through the use of innovative and cutting edge information and communications technology and fair trade income generation.

I have held this mission in East Africa as the core of my identity for the last 10 years, and to be heart wrenchingly honest, sometimes I wonder where the cause ends and I begin. I have put the cause above my family, friends, and relationships. What is stranger yet is how those same people have willing accepted and encouraged it. Sometimes I want to be “Just Crystal”.

A person, a witness, a human, not an iconic person who is addressed as Madame by the educated and Mzungu by the less so. I started this organization as a young, idealist 26-year old naive mother-child who believed that she could change the world simply by believing it was possible. And since have been doing whatever was necessary to test, try, or fight to get the job done. Life is beyond precious, and humanity deserves better.

This “Just Crystal and the Impossible Trifecta” is the first in what will be an ongoing Friday series where I talk openly about my 10 years of work in Africa, updates on projects, experiences as an immigrant to Kenya, and my life in general and sometime in particular. This blog in no way illustrative of the views of Voices of Africa as an organization… It is JUST CRYSTAL, me, myself, and I sharing my world with the rest of humanity. Our organization has two board of directors and their vote is what makes our decisions. I do not believe that matters of magnitude should be handled by one person, just in case that person is wrong. And even I, have been sometimes wrong.

I decided to write this service as I need an outlet that isn’t dictated by someone else’s questions or interests, but the truth of the things that I realized in Tanzania, couldn’t be said out loud. Being American, at first I had a very loud mouth when I came to East Africa, and still do on some occasions. I recall in those first few months of honeymoon, I wanted to write about everything and daydreamed poems about our toilet that had no rooftop where flowers covered the remains of the day. I used to write to share, not only to compete for the funds we needed to operate. Even 10 years later, I do not rely on the charity for my survival, billing a fat expat salary, but rather invest in people and programs. Whatever is necessary to keep innovating.

One of our engineers, Paul, and our 3D medical printers designed in Tanzania

I have spent most of these years in three countries: Kenya, Tanzania, and a bit in the US. Being American, I am a huge fan of free speech. Kenya taught me, the hard way, there are some things it is OK to say and others more fragile. While the most challenging was Tanzania, where the entire population was muzzled by strict social media laws against criticizing the president or the government. To all of these gentlemen in power in the three countries where I work and reside, I want to know when exactly it became more important to spend on luxury and expensive campaigns when there are still people in need. When did it become acceptable for public service to become businesses?

At least that is somewhere where the president of Tanzania may have it right. You do not see the handouts and pomp and circumstance from the government of Tanzania because the government really is concerned with improving the country. In Kenya, politics is a free for all. City councils members to Senators throwing punches when they are to be legislating. Meanwhile in the US, 45 is digging a hole that only gets deeper and deeper. Eventually if not careful, it will create a sink hole and pull the entire country inside. My head spins thinking of the state of the world and luckily I am too busy trying to change it in our small way to be bogged down in the chaos.

How am I doing? If you really want to know I spent two months working on preparing two grants only to become a finalist, yet leave a failure in one, and watch the other program evaporate the same day before my eyes due to USAID budget cuts. When you’ve worked for something so long sometimes when you lose, you feel something akin to grief. You pass through all the stages denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance because in that moment, a cherished vision evaporates.

Failure as an organization often feels like translates into personal failure. Thankfully, the same is true of successes and we have the most awesome team of people who have stuck with us through thick and thin. Maybe I have an overdose of resilience, because as soon as I came to the phase of acceptance, I started applying again.

This time I waited for the grants to come to me and I am being more selective. We are working on a new business plan for fundraising so that we are no longer beholden to the larger donor organizations. I would rather turn the “Out of Stock” project into a separate company if possible than continue trying to catch these big fish NGO funds if it isn’t possible. In the long run, this will be tremendously profitable; the numbers don’t lie.

It reminds me of how, why, and the principles I founded this organization. At Voices of Africa when we are on project team we are treated as equals. We all have the right to share our voices. Well, unless you are the Director… and then you are often muzzled about who and how you are and your private life becomes public. I have avoided any of the such until today… This is me, just Crystal, writing to you from Likoni, Kenya after a long and frustrating day.

None of us seek great riches or high salaries, but to serve the people in need using technology to the best of our ability on each opportunity we have been given. We are a team of predominately volunteers. And oh my, we have been given a great number of opportunities over the years.

All of this was to learn and to grow. It has allowed us to collect members from all over the world and have a truly international volunteer network. Thus, if we have created an international global network I can share my own adventures and maybe, just maybe, it will reach emphatic souls and they will come to help build something brand new with us.

A  documentary we made with our partners working on the World Bank ReFab Dar project talks about how we could make a million medical tools a day. Since then we have been working on ways to solve health care challenges with this technology and create a never before seen medical tool supply chain, especially designed for developing countries.

 We have had so many adventures over the years, and the “Out of Stock” project we have now is the culmination of years of real life field research. The Trifecta of software on tablets, 3D printers, and UAVs can use the best and latest technology created to serve those who need it the most. With these technologies, we can create products that solve real problems and produce them real time. The designs and files can come from anywhere in the world.

Here is a piece describing the process from sickbed idea to ready to test prototypes, I wrote this essay for an application just today:

For the past 3 years, we have been focusing on using patient management systems, tablets, 3D printers, drones, and other frontier technologies the develop product prototypes of these innovations in Africa by Africans to disrupt the medical supply chain and medical diagnostic models. We have dubbed the project “Out of Stock, Out of Time” and we seek to create a closed system of the manufacture and design of basic health care tools at the local medical facility level.

Our journey began when I was working as a consultant to an NGO working on the implementation of medical records systems in the Lake Zone of Tanzania. At that time Voices of Africa was running a children’s home for endangered street boys and I became dreadfully sick. During the course of my work I had visited more than 20 different medical facilities in the area and was most impressed by a hospital named Mugana Designated District Hospital run by the Cannosian sisters that was 3 hours away on a mountain top in Bukoba.

I had severe typhoid, my appendix was about to rupture, and my uterus had a growth and was threatening prolapse. With no graphic details required, I was a critically ill patient in a hospital with 2 doctors that served over 500,000 people, had predominately students as nurses as it was a teaching hospital, and was the primary birthing facility for the district population of more than a million. In the nearly two months I was there, I came across two stunning problems.

First, there were not a enough medical tools held in stock in the hospital facility and many of the medicines and tolls had to be bought from Indian drug vendors as they were not actually supplies by the government as per the law. The lack of medical tools inside the facility highlighted the problem with a lack of medical tools OUTSIDE the facility in the catchment area of people who ended up having to have home births and the high infant and maternal mortality rates there.

Second, the nursing school had nearly no teaching materials. By the time I left had a computer room, and VSAT for more up to date course materials however they did not have any medical models or have any 3D renderings to understand anatomy and physiology. Basically their education depending on testing new skills on unsuspecting patients. After visits to at least 10 more of these nursing college facilities, I saw the exact same problem over and over again and asked the board if we could try to tackle the challenge.

Mugana Hospital, Bukoba, TZ, A typical rural Tanzanian hospital

We first opened an office in Kigamboni, Dar es Salaam and established the Tanzanian Trust we have today. The Trust was formed to allow Voices of Africa to operate while I was able to join the World Bank as a Project Coordinator for the ReFab Dar project (www.refabdar.org). As Project Coordinator, I basically took the role of project manager and was given an immense amounts of freedom to innovation and explore. It was the best job I have had to date.

During that project, along with partners, we created a filament extruder to make plastic bottles in 3D printer filament with Reflow using the equipment in India now. We also designed two versions of ewaste 3D printers based off the open source techfortrade design. The latest printer has less ewaste components but has been designed for the sole purpose of making medical tools.

We have an 8 piece birthing kit for prenatal and antenatal care and a circumcision tool kit. With Cambridge University, we have been developing 3D printed microscopes for digital field based disease diagnosis particularly malaria and TB. The original concept for the Waterscope was for testing bacterial content in water. At the request of the Commission of Science and Technology and the interest of our disability partners, we have started to explore and test prosthetic and adaptive devices.

Engineer Adella and some early protoypes in our DBTi office

We decided at present that we would have a three pronged sustainability approach:

1. Recruit bright young minds for internship and volunteer placements with specializations that can help to increase the quality and quantities of both our machines and the medical products they are printing.
2. Increase fund raising efforts within the United States and recruit a more effective fund raising team.
3. Find investors rather than donors who will be committed to taking these products to market after the charity side of the social enterprise has completed the next required year of Research and Development.

Years ago when I first started working on medical technology in East Africa, I would have told you that this Trifecta was impossible. Now I know better, impossible things are happening every day thanks to brilliant minds and eager hands who believe another world is possible. This may just be the open invitation you have been looking for to serve the world and be Just YOU.

Makers movement with 3D Printing

Making Makers!

An important current trend is the Makers Movement. When applied to healthcare, patients can hack their illnesses with simple modifications and brainstorming. Patients are making a difference by driving solutions in their own care, on an individual case-by-case basis.

A cornerstone of the Makers Movement is 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, one of the most disruptive technologies across every industry and economy in the world. Its applications in healthcare are tremendous and game-changing specifically when used in places of insufficient medical supply. Widespread access to and knowledge about 3D printing is going to take the patient makers movement to a whole new level.

The explosive growth of 3D printing means that you can personalize and individualize literally every single thing in your life to your exact specifications — color, design, size. This is a huge difference from making one-size-fits-all. Anything that goes on or in the body will be printed to fit you 100 percent. Just about anything that was previously made of plastic or metal can now easily be printed in 3D.

3D printing would be able to furnish hospital with on-demand supplies and equipment. In areas with unstable supply lines or in remote locations, 3D printing will mean the difference between being able to access some supplies, or having nothing at all. For example,In Tanzania, a makers workshop Sticlab has managed to 3D print a microscope that is cost effective and reliable to inidividuals of all calibers. The microscope could be used in rural places where access to daily medical deliveries is a huge issue. It’s difficult to get enough medical supplies to places like Mzaganza and 3D printing provided an immediate solution, with accurate results.

Widespread access to and knowledge about 3D printing is going to take the patient Maker Movement to a whole new level. It is expected to see rapid progress, now that patients suddenly have easy access to new tools to create solutions that can make a major impact, especially in daily routines.

Traditional medicine isn’t deeply personalized, but the Maker Movement is making it possible for patients to individualize their treatments, share their work and ideas in communities, collaborate together and innovate further.

Health and 3D printing hackathon has been organized to take place in Tanzania on 14th February 2017 at Buni Hub with one core purpose. TO drive more people and raise awareness on the use of 3D printing in saving lives.

3D printing in Africa, 3D printing at home.

3D printing in Africa, 3D printing at home.

Why idealize when we can materialize, having all at our finger tips. Imagining and creating beyond our expectation, not having to depend and wait for everything to be made for us. Making the dormant ideas become activated and switched to reality.

All great things started small, with a push of looking for ways to make Africa to be more innovative and creative. 3D printing can revolutionize and change the perception of our lives. 3D printing can push the limits of personalizing the needs at hand by creating resourceful tools and aids.

Might not make such a drastic change today but I believe there is a great future with 3D printing in Africa. 3D printing is offering various opportunities in medicine, education, agriculture, architecture and some much more. Taking the chance to work together in order to persuade the change of incorporating 3D printing in the system.

As we move into the future, 3D printing will start to become a common term in the technology industry. It is clearly a challenging problem, and it’s likely that it won’t succeed without all the significant contributions that have to be made during a period of time. I am looking forward for the future with this technology and playing my part to make a change. Let’s us all play our parts, lets us all work together because I know we will have more fun at it like that.

The Trifecta

Using new technologies and innovation is not usually about fixing what is directly broken in the old system but rather creating a new system to replace it. The Trifecta of internet (tablets), 3D printers, and drones can radically alter supply chains for many products and goods. This can apply to the medical industry, but also to spare parts, agriculture, fashion, and consumer goods. This trifecta will revolutionize life as we know it in coming years.

The Commission Of Science and Technology (COSTECH)’s research priorities in Human Capital Development, Health, Water and Sanitation, Energy, as well as Industry and Manufacturing1 are all served by further research and developing in the use of internet and cloud based STL files and 3D printing for the creation of manufactured products to fulfill the basic human needs. As each person with a printer can chose their own files for the products they want to to introduce to the market anyone with access to a 3D printer can become an entrepreneur. The access to the technology and to the machines to build such technologies is a necessary step in the industrial development of Tanzania. Machines and other products do not have to be imported from other countries indefinitely. Micro industrialization can begin here and now. With a printer, internet, solar, and some training anyone can be a small business owner. Their income entirely dependent on their creativity and resolve. This is using the principle at the core of the capitalism system of economics division of labor. If “making” is decentralized by leveraging 3D printing technology, people can more easily and equitably own the “means of production”. Manufacturing becomes democratic and small scale with mini factories each making special order, unique products.

As more than 10% of youth are unemployed or underemployed there is great opportunity for expansion and growth of new employment and new industries that did not previously exist. These youth need to be have basic training in the practical application of electronics and engineering, rather than theoretical knowledge, to begin the design and production of products for the Tanzanian market, by Tanzanian citizens. Even if the designs are found online and resourced as Open Source, the person printing the product makes the full profit of its sale minus the cost of the plastic input and the “wear and tear” on the machine. The government of Tanzania is looking for “Big Results Now”. With some investment in education, Tanzanian could be designing machines to sell to their neighbors, they could be designing new products never seen before, and could compete and integrate with the global market while localizing production.


*** Top photo is Zipline UAV testing in California for Rwanda http://flyzipline.com/product/

101 Ideas

This post is part of a series that highlights different activities related to the ReFab Dar program. Learn more about the program here.

Twenty year old Javan meets us promptly at 10am the Sinza bus station in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Javan has been working as a waste picker for more than 3 years. Coming from a poor rural village with few opportunities for employment, Javan headed to Dodoma and started collecting plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles for recycling to make a living. Being an opportunistic young man with no formal education, Javan moved to Dar es Salaam seeing the enormity of plastic bottles wasted as cash on the street waiting for him to pick it up. There are 4,000 tonnes of PET plastic generated in Dar es Salaam per month. Of the total amount brought for recycling, 90% of the PET plastic collected is in the form of plastic bottles gathered by individual waste pickers.

Javan is not alone in seeing the potential for earning an income via the plastic recycling businesses in Tanzania. TENA, translated from Swahili as “Again”, was founded in 2013 in Arusha to produce a fair trade market for discarded plastic bottles. The organization expanded to working in Dar es Salaam about 10 months ago and was quickly able to secure a wide network of sales agents, waste pickers, and staff. There is one main office and four satellites where the plastic waste is collected. Each satellite office is fed via a system of Sales Agents which gather the plastic bottles from 10-20 waste pickers. Once the Sales Agent has a sufficient amount of plastic purchased from the waste pickers, TENA sends a small three wheeled “Toyo” truck to pick the bottles and deliver them to the satellite office. The satellite office sends its bottles to the head office where they are shredded, cleaned, and exported.

Last week, the team at ReFab Dar spent time with the men and women working with TENA Recycling. Most of the people interviewed had not heard of 3D printing before and were amazed by its potential to transform plastic bottles into filament that can be used in 3D printers to develop useful products. The most interesting part of the interviews was watching the excited expression on the faces of the recyclers when we explained the technology behind how the bottles become products (see below to learn how Tech For Trade’s extruder technology makes this possible).

Once we discussed with the waste pickers and local sales agents the capacity of 3D printing to create products, they listed a number of suggestions as to what plastic items would sell in the Tanzanian consumer market. From jewelry to sandals and medical items, the list of possible products swelled to more than 101. Imagine: in just a few moments, we brainstormed 101 recycled plastic products that could be made from Tanzania’s plastic bottle waste. While these ideas need to be refined and validated, there is little question that a new industry of that size and scale could provide many jobs and improve the livelihoods of youth.

Everyone who participated in the focus groups showed an eagerness to see the prototypes as they are developed and to be a part of the ongoing project, so that we could together engineer new recycled products with the very people who will create, sell, and use them. And by showing an interest in the opinions of the recyclers, the sessions hosted by the ReFab Dar team helped them feel included and part of a participatory process – a critical objective given the stigma in Tanzania against the recycling industry and of waste pickers.

Above all else, the ReFab Dar program seeks to validate a new way for some to make money when few other options exist. For others, it can lead to profitable business or entrepreneurial endeavors. In any case, both the sales agents and the waste pickers yearn for better market prices for the plastic bottles. Price fluctuations are currently caused by the volatility in oil prices and the price of exporting the plastic flakes that are exported in bulk to Europe and China so income reliability is still a challenge.

ReFab Dar might help normalize these fluctuations for both waste pickers and sales agents.The filament created from plastic bottles will be Ethical Filament, meaning that the Ethical Filament Code of Ethics as well as Technical Code will be utilized in filament production and management process. This should help ensure a more consistent and reasonable price for the recyclers.

As Tech for Trade, the engineering technology partner of ReFabDar, finalizes its extruder technology development and as the filament becomes available for use, ReFab Dar will begin producing and sharing prototypes with the same recyclers who are bringing in the plastic bottles at the start of the process, completing a virtuous circle between supply and demand. These recyclers will be encouraged to re-sell these new products to create new income streams. From plastic bottle to consumer good, the program is an exciting sandbox that could transform the future for Javan and other youth entrepreneurs.