Using 3D printing to help in the fight against COVID-19 in Tanzania

June 4, 2020

3D printed sample of ventilator splitter

‘Changamoto huleta Maarifa’ a Swahili proverb meaning 'Neccesity is the mother of all inventions’.

Perhaps the above quoted proverb is more relevant now than ever before in human history, as the world grapples with the appalling effects of the Novel Corona virus invasion. Apparently, the African continent is no exception in this, see updates:  Even though infection rates may seem trivial for a continent of 1.2 Billion people and a country of approximately 56 million people, truth is- you can never underestimate the aggressive nature of a deadly contagion such as COVID-19. Undeniably, the COVID onslaught has been the biggest test to development practioners and actors across many continents.  In Tanzania, it offers yet again a realization that we probably need to do things differently, furthermore, it upholds a testament to the contention purporting to the irrelevance of 20th century development methods to address systematic risks of the 21st century such as hunger, diseases, inequality, mass surveillance, Unemployment etc.

Across the world and in Tanzania, there is an upsurge of multiple solutions in responding to the COVID -19 pandemic such as tackling misinformation, virtual food vending platforms, clinical robots, automated hand washers, etc. But what do we see? Personally, I see  more bubbling ideas from the innovation ecosystem and less from conventional development actors, such as NGOs and CBOs, as Gina et al put it in their blog ‘ The planet is burning. But what are we learning?’ - Agile appears to be having a moment!

It is from this backdrop that  UNDP accelerator lab in Tanzania decided in March this year to join hands with various techpreneurs in the Innovation  ecosystem to respond to the crisis by supporting a ‘3D makers community’ in designing, fabrication and distribution of Personal, Protective Equipment (PPEs) to support protecting front line health workers across the country especially those serving in quarantine centers for COVID-19 patients

Bringing together unusual partners.

Partnership is one of the key precepts of UNDP’s accelerator lab programme. In Tanzania we seek to bring the ‘unusual suspects’ in the development space and promote the use of new sources of data and technologies to address the ever-increasing societal challenges; we seek to add value by; 1)Strengthening legitimacy in the ecosystem 2) Convening across sectors of the economy and 3) elevating new problem solvers by finding and tapping individual problem solvers in the urban and rural settings.

Partnering for maximum m impact - (L-R) Julia Jenjezwa, DIT Design Studio Coordinator/Rice 360 Institute for Global Health; Shaukhatali Hussein, Head of Robotech and Peter Nyanda, Head of Exploration UNDP Tanzania

The Accelerator Lab in Tanzania in this case, reached out to a new set of innovators that could help to  address an imminent threat posed by the invasion of COVID-19; given the fragile nature of many African health systems-the problem of inadequate medical supplies and especially Personal Protective Equipment for front line health workers immediately popped up. Furthermore, Through various exploratory visits in the past, I had come across  various maker spaces in the city of Dar Es Salaam where the UNDP office is located and therefore it was a no brainer to reach out to the ‘makers community’ and later the  Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) design studio — a government Lab housed at the Dar Es Salaam institute of Technology, co-funded by Rice 360° Institute for Global Health (USA).

 Indeed, UNDP accelerator lab joined the movement to provide technical and financial support in the design, fabrication and testing of appropriate technologies for Tanzania. This includes collaboration on 3D printing capabilities, supply of PPEs and other innovations towards the fight against COVID-19. The DIT design studio at the time had informally joined hands with other labs and makers such as the Science Technology and Innovation Center Lab (STIC), Uhuru labs, Mbeya University of Science and Technology (Government owned), Bits&bytes (Private) and Robotech (Private). This unusual mix of government institutions and private hubs attracted me the most because I firmly believe that solutions are better crafted in a unison.

On 3D printing.

Check out this hyperlink for more details on 3D technology

As a fourth Industrial revolution (4IR) technology is cheaper, faster, convenient and reliable and very suitable for production processes in times of crisis such as this. UNDP’s motivation to step in the innovation ecosystem and in this case in a 4IR technology such as 3D printing is due to the realization that we are facing a challenge that requires agility and quick decision making as opposed to the conventional way of getting things done.

3D printing machine

Just to share the nitty gritties of how the process worked; I reached out to the ‘makers community’ -a name coined to refer to 3D printing labs across the country- I was so humbled by how the community was content to have UNDP accelerator lab as a partner and leader in the process, after various engagements the following transpired;

a) We undertook crowd sourcing of 3D printers across Tanzania, COVID-19 treatment and quarantine locations. ( about 12 printers were solicited)

b) Printers were vetted, and we selected a few which were supplied with DIY kits.

c) Two Maker spaces were selected, the DIT design studio and Robotech studio as the main production hubs.

d) Online adverts were made and circulated on social media.

e) Orders were placed by frontline health workers or a hospital by using a USSD code — Text VIFAA to 15062, feedback is given through SMS after receipt.

f) A crowd funding platform established by UNDP acc lab partner Bits&Bytes manages order and uses the fund to absorb the bills incurred by Public hospitals where there was need.

g) PPEs developed include; intubation box, face shields (costing about $2, whereas imported ones sell for up to $11 a piece) including ventilator parts- all these parts are tested by the National Hospital labs before mass production, distribution and delivery.

h) The partners involved in the community host a weekly zoom call and a WhatsApp chat group for updates.

i) 3D printing machines used included; Ultimaker, Prusa and Forge Dreame.

Making a difference.

Incredibly, at the time of writing, this collaboration had led to designing, fabricating, and distribution of over 2000 units of various PPEs to support Tanzanian front line health workers in various public and private hospitals. The products included face shields, intubation boxes and ventilator splitters. it reached clinicians at Muhumbili National Hospital (The largest hospital in Tanzania), Amana Regional Referral Hospital, The Aga Khan Hospital and to others across regions such as Arusha and the Islands of Zanzibar.

With support from UNDP, the Design Studio and other partners will be able to increase their capacity to respond to CoVID-19. This will include distribution of thousands more PPEs, ventilator parts and other medical device spare parts and local sterilization solutions. At the time of writing, UNDP accelerator lab Tanzania is also intending to formalize knowledge partnership with multiple actors in the ‘makers community’.

In his words, Dr. Binagi the head of COVID-19 response facility at Amana hospital in Dar Es Salaam, pointed out;

‘we are so thankful to UNDP and its partners for this timely support, we have 90 nurses and doctors on shift and therefore PPEs are highly needed in our hospital in order to protect them, we kindly ask you to scale up your work and support more public hospitals across the country’

One of the nurses who have received 3D printed face shield

And takeaways.

As per the Swahili proverb above, COVID -19 pandemic has challenged and tested us a great deal, it has however brought forward a big opportunity for creativity and invention within and outside hubs, maker spaces and development actors in general to experiment and test what  really works at a time like this . It is also crucial also for innovators to start thinking how they can take 3D printing and other innovations to scale but also on the relevance of their post -COVID interventions.

As we embark on this journey, I still think about Sub-Saharan Africa which is still grappling to enhance its economies with the facets of the 2nd Industrial revolution such as electrification. 3D printing is a fourth Industrial revolution technology- obviously not an easy song to sing! But I guess, this and many other initiatives in Africa will demonstrate how small moves like this one can have such as an amplified effect on people’s lives.

As I end this narrative, you may probably ask, so, what next? I have a few ideas;

1) Development actors need to ensure that these learning/experiences in turn inform policy and programmes across sectors

2)It is crucial to support Innovative businesses to become ‘bankable’ and get them for scaling/growing

3) Instigating discussion on how governments can embrace 4IR technologies and finally, the innovation ecosystem as a whole need to address issues of inclusion and in this case bridging the urban-rural technological divide.

What have you learnt from your experience? I am happy to hear from you, let’s keep the debate going. Finally, I call on the private sector, donors, innovators and philanthropists to join us and support this life saving initiative In Tanzania.

‘Writing this blog gave me a huge sense of hope and anticipation, if you feel the same feel free to share with your colleagues and friends’

For more information about the UNDP accelerator programme visit:

By Peter Nyanda, Team lead and Head of exploration, UNDP accelerator lab Tanzania