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Sep 21, 2020

By the Philips Foundation team

The Nairobi Maker Space gives science, engineering and technology undergraduates the opportunity to put scientific theory into practice by designing and developing medical devices that will benefit Kenya’s population. Fourth-year Industrial Chemistry student Christine Otieno found the Nairobi Maker Space almost by accident. 

It turned out to be a lucky encounter, because it has already made a lasting impression on her and equipped her with skills that will help to shape her future. We talked to her about the experience and what it has meant to her.


How did you get involved in the Nairobi Maker Space?


“I had a couple of engineer friends who were at the Maker Space and kept telling me about it. And then one day, one of them called me and said they were going and would I like to come along.  When I got there people asked me ‘So what do you do, what do you want to do? And I replied, ‘I just want to learn.’ They told me there was a project that involved chemistry, and would I be interested, so I just jumped in.”


What is the project you are helping with?


“It’s an oxygen concentrator that uses a mineral called zeolite to absorb nitrogen from the air so that you end up with more oxygen getting to the patient. We were basically re-engineering the device for use in Kenya, based on conversations we had with nurses about what they wanted or what they wanted improved. We have two problems in Kenya. One is that we import a lot of medical equipment from other countries, which often means that if it breaks down we have to wait for an engineer from another country to come and fix it. 


As a result, the hospitals sometimes have devices lying unused for months. The other problem is that in Kenya you need to consider situations like power outages or communities that do not have power. How do they get to use the equipment? Does it need a backup battery or a solar power system to keep it running? We also looked at maintenance issues and the environment in which the equipment will be used.

One of the biggest things I took away from it was that you have to think about designing a piece of equipment or service from a human-centered point of view right from the start

Part of the project is also to make solutions affordable. So even though we may not be able to reduce the price compared to what’s already on the market, we can come up with ways of making additional resources available that will make it more effective and affordable in the long run. For example, enabling the engineer who made the device to visit in time to get it up and running in two days instead of two months. With the COVID-19 issue, the project has got a lot of attention. So right now, there’s a huge team building prototypes.”


From a student perspective, what is the atmosphere like in Maker Space?


“The atmosphere is very nice. It can be quite intimidating at first, because it’s a very open space where you are encouraged to share your ideas and get them critiqued, but also to build on them. So I like to think of it as the deep end of a pool. You know you are going to be thrown in at the deep end, and you’ll have to swim your way out. I find that very beautiful, because you go in with something and then they get you into the process of how to do it, but without holding your hand every step of the way. So provided you are prepared to put the work in, by the time you swim your way out you have what you need. It’s also a very multidisciplinary space, because it has attracted a lot of different people through the Maker Space hackathon events.”


What did you gain from the training by Philips Innovation Services?


“The training provided by Roel and Aly from Philips Innovation Services was basically about the process of idea-to-market. One of the biggest things I took away from it was that you have to think about designing a piece of equipment or service from a human-centered point of view right from the start, because ultimately it’s going to interact with a human being.

I think the most interesting part for me was thinking about the user-journey so you get a product or service that really addresses the user’s needs. Users don’t always notice that some parts of that journey are harder than they should be, so you need to design your product or service to make those parts easier. For example, you get to realize, ‘Oh, if this person uses a bicycle then probably they need a bag to put all the equipment in.’ So instead of just giving them equipment, you provide them with equipment in a bag. For me, that was the most interesting part.”


Looking back at the whole experience, what did you think of it?


“I think what my journey in Maker Space made me realize was that I needed new skills to be able to really make an impact. I didn’t know how to do certain things, and Maker Space presented me with an opportunity to learn how to do them.


Even though I had good academic grades, you still need to translate that knowledge into something you can use to build something. In High School, I had a chemistry teacher who was very passionate about the fact that ‘chemistry could make.’ But when I got to university there was a lot of theory. I wanted to apply that knowledge, but there never seemed to be a spark. When I went to Maker Space it felt as if the spark was there. It certainly opened my mind to more career options than I would probably have considered if I had not gone. I would probably have just looked at the manufacturing industry, but now I see so many more avenues open to me.


I think in my heart, whatever I do, it will need to have a social aspect – making sure that people get the help they need or I get to positively impact a real person. So whatever that looks like, I am going to explore it.”




The interview with Christine Otieno is part of a series in which several ecosystem players share their experiences about the Maker Project: A 4-year long project fostered by Philips Foundation and UNICEF to yield locally enabled innovation in Kenya’s mother and child care. Click here for the related press release.

About Christine Otieno

Christine Otieno was a four year industrial chemistry student at the University of Nairobi when she actively participated in the Nairobi Maker Space. Christine worked on an oxygen concentrator – a medical device to supply patients with oxygen – which has been redesigned for use in Kenya.

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