UNDP is leveraging technology to support the visually impaired

November 29, 2021

Sumaya Rebecca, a resident of Masaka, Kicukiro District mostly relies on her child’s guidance for movement. A young woman with visual impairment, Rebecca has had her fair share of challenges living life daily.

Even with her walking cane, getting around hasn’t been easy. And because of such limitations, her survival has been mostly supported by well-wishers who sometimes pay rent; buy food and other necessities for her.  

“I face various challenges because of my visual impairment. One of them is not being able to move on my own from one place to another, for example going to a somewhat distant place like church. My daughter normally acts as my guide, but when she is at school, I find it hard walking by myself. Even when I use a walking stick, I find it hard to get around as I often bump into obstacles and fall into ditches,” the 29-year-old says.

Rebecca’s case is not an isolated one. Many of those living with visual impairment find it difficult to navigate around places. The possibility of them bumping into obstacles, knocking things over and hurting themselves is high and can be frustrating and frightening.

Such challenges are what impelled United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Accelerator Lab to look for solutions that can improve mobility independence of persons with visual impairment. 

Using a virtual solution mapping exercise, UNDP Accelerator Lab worked in collaboration with the Ministry and ICT and Innovation and the Ministry of Youth and Culture, to identify local solutions that address complex development challenges. Innovation for disability inclusion emerged as a priority thematic area. 

Christa Munezero Uwamahoro, the Head of Experimentation at UNDP, says UNDP Accelerator Lab organised design thinking sessions with members of Rwanda Union of the Blind and a solution provider to deeply understand the challenges and learn how visually impaired persons are trying to address the mobility issue.  

Based on discussions with members, they began to experiment on what features could help persons with visual impairment to move freely and safely.  

Features of the smart white cane

Amani Niyoyita, an Electronic Project Developer at Beno Holdings Ltd— a leading internet of things solution provider dedicated to solving difficulties faced by the African mobility industry and a YouthConnekt beneficiary explains that when developing the device, they based it on the present obstacles and created a piece that fully addresses them.

The smart white cane is electronic and can detect obstacles up to 1.2 meters ahead. 

The GPS functionality is to identify the geographic location of the user. This feature also facilitates to track the smart white cane in case it is lost. 

It has reflectors that inform other road users that the white cane user needs special assistance, Niyoyita said.

These features give it superior detection capability. Others include its ability to be rechargeable. It has a battery that can last for five days and can be charged using a normal phone charger. It is also waterproof meaning the sensors cannot easily be damaged by water. 

The smart white cane itself is made from aluminium, which makes it lighter, portable and easy to fold, and be carried in a bag.

Niyoyita also highlighted that the smart white cane has a lighting system with different colours that light up depending on the situation. At night, the lights turn blue and red to indicate emergency. That way, people can identify them and give them special attention; drivers can also spot them, and hence limiting possibility of accidents.

The smart white cane has different sounds for when it is night or day. The sounds help those who are visually impaired but are able to hear. For those with multiple disabilities- deaf-blind, the stick is fitted with vibration capability that warns them as needed. 

Impact of the innovation

Munezero explains that normally, people living with visual impairment rely on guides or travel aid tools to help them move around.  Having to depend on someone to guide them affects their mobility independence, which keeps them behind and isolated in society.  

The smart white cane can detect obstacles, identify locations and alert road users that the user of the white cane needs special assistance, which she says will help increase mobility independence and allow persons with visual impairment to participate in various socio-economic development activities.

Jean Marie Furaha, member of Rwanda Union of the Blind, says this innovation is a solution for their daily challenges, adding that whereas the old cane was somehow helpful, it had a number of limitations.

“As someone who has both visual and hearing impairments, the digital cane will help me a lot especially that it can vibrate. Hopefully drivers will now stop for me when I am crossing a road. The ordinary white cane was good but it had limitations. It didn’t have lights or vibration to warn you and road users against obstacles like the new one,” he says.

Rebecca also applauds features of the digital cane saying that it will help them sense from a distance when there is an obstacle ahead.

“This will prevent us from falling into ditches or tripping on stones. I will be able to move around easily even when my child is not around to help me. I appreciate UNDP for such an innovation. May God bless them and give them more knowledge to do even more,” she says.

Donatille Kanimba, the Executive Director of the National Union of the Blind says the innovation comes with evident impact on the visually impaired in terms of security and independence.

“The ordinary white cane we have can help us detect danger but it normally does that after you’ve reached the obstacle. This isn’t the case with the electronic white cane that can even inform you if the obstacle is above or below you, for example wire ropes could at times strangle us or strain our heads but since the smart white cane reaches there before you, we can easily prevent that,” she says.

That is the main difference and it is a big one because it ensures our security and safety. Such initiatives make us feel great because they show that our challenges are of concern and people are making it priority to see that they are addressed, Kanimba adds. 

“As of now, UNDP has made 40 smart sticks available.  This is a pilot project. We wanted to first test if the technology can solve the challenge. Our plan is to engage different stakeholders and work on how we can scale this project to reach many beneficiaries,” Munezero says.

About the Accelerator project

The Accelerator Lab network is part of UNDP’s broader efforts to expand the way the organisation invests and delivers development. The 91 Labs covering 115 countries use an approach of sensing, exploring, and testing solutions led by people closest to the problem. 

UNDP Rwanda Accelerator Lab focuses on leveraging technology and innovation to accelerate development and make impact. In 2020, it deployed 5 anti-epidemic robots and 3 disinfection robots to fight Covid-19 pandemic. Currently, they are working on several projects to tackle complex challenges including waste management, visual disability, and mental health.