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Sep 21, 2020

By the Philips Foundation team

Dr Richard Ayah, Senior Lecturer in the School of Public Health and Director of the Science and Technology Park at Nairobi University, could rightly be described as the father of the Nairobi University ‘Maker Space’. It’s a facility that brings together science and engineering students, nurses and clinicians to locally innovate, develop and manufacture medical equipment relevant to Kenya’s healthcare needs and provide much-needed local employment. 

Founded with the help of a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through Concern Worldwide, the Nairobi University Maker Space has enlisted the support of numerous other charitable organizations, including the Philips Foundation and UNICEF. Enlisting the help of Philips Innovation Services and Philips Research Africa, the Philips Foundation organized valuable student training in medical device innovation and entrepreneurship. We talked to Dr Ayah about the Maker Space journey from idea to creation, and how it is empowering students to take on the challenges of healthcare provision in Kenya.


How did the Maker Space start?


“In 2013 when we started running a Masters course in Health Systems at the School of Public Health, we thought: how do we get these students to demonstrate what they are learning? At around the same time, we also had a project called the Health Systems Africa Hub, involving seven Schools of Public Health [1], where we had a few small grants to promote work on health systems and capacity building. So I decided to combine those grants and see if we could address one of the gaps in Kenya’s public health – the adequate supply of medical supplies and medical equipment.

Philips Foundation enlisting the help of Philips Innovation Services and Philips Research Africa was one of the best things to happen

I discovered that the university’s School of Engineering had students who were thinking about designing medical devices but were simply going on the internet to discover what was needed, not really interacting with anybody in the local healthcare system. To address that issue we organized a symposium for students from the Schools of Engineering, Medicine and Public Health with the aim of learning what the real needs were from the health side and matching those with the capacity on the engineering side. Dr Edwin Mbugua from Concern Worldwide attended and took a great interest, and from there we worked together and got our first grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”


What factors were critical in the health system in Kenya at the time?


“In Kenya, we get two categories of medical equipment. One is donated equipment, which comes ‘as it comes’, and the other is equipment secured through the healthcare system. And between those two there is a gap in terms of what our biomedical engineers can fix if it goes wrong. At that time, there were no university degree courses in biomedical engineering in Kenya, so there was a huge gap in terms of what could be made or repaired locally. What the Maker Space project is trying to do is bridge that gap from the innovation side.”


How did Philips Foundation and UNICEF get involved and what was it like working with them?


“Philips Foundation and UNICEF first approached us in 2016, but initially there was some disquiet about getting involved with Philips because it’s a commercial company. However, I think the fact that the Philips Foundation is actually an independent charitable organization made a big difference, which is why the whole thing eventually went ahead.


Philips Foundation enlisting the help of Philips Innovation Services and Philips Research Africa was one of the best things to happen, because one of the weaknesses of our original innovation ‘hackathons’ was the aspect of how to commercialize ideas – how do you engage with the market, who is going to pay for the product or service and what will it cost. Philips brought those things onboard. Plus they gave us for free something you would normally have to pay a lot of money for. It was that valuable.

Another thing that Philips Foundation helped us with was the actual building of prototypes. When we started the Maker Space project, we would get a group of students in, they would be enthusiastic, work on something for weeks, and then they would have to go back to their academic studies. So the projects would stall. However, with the help of Philips Foundation we have been able to build a solid team of makers. We now have two full-time engineers, and we can get five or six interns to come in and help. That means we can now actually sit and build prototypes.


Compared to previous organizations, the relationship with Philips Foundation and UNICEF was much warmer, much more engaged, much more involved in what you are doing. We have had experiences in the past where we received a grant, and the donor says ‘OK, here’s the money. Now report back and that will be it.’ What Philips Foundation and UNICEF did, and continue to do, is adopt a much more engaged approach, because both organizations recognize the gaps that exist within the health system.”


What are your personal experiences of the initiative?


“At the launch of Maker Space, one of my observations was that more than 50% of the doctors and nurses who came in were female. Compare that to the engineering students, who were virtually all male. So one of the successes of Maker Space has been the number of women participating. For example, you see a big difference between the Maker Space and the MIT Fab Lab in the Engineering School, which is mostly male. In my experience, the Maker Space is a much happier place to be and a lot livelier.


Originally, however, the Maker Space was an abandoned lab that had to be refurbished, which meant rebuilding the toilets. But because they were rebuilt by the engineering guys, they built them as if everyone was male. So one of the beautiful things that Philips did was help us to redesign the toilets to make them much more women-friendly. It was just a small thing, but it made a big difference. And after all, the project with Philips and UNICEF is actually all about maternal and newborn health.”




The interview with Dr Richard Ayah 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 Dr Richard Ayah

Dr Richard Ayah is Senior Lecturer in the School of Public Health and Director of the Science and Technology Park at Nairobi University. Richard leads the Nairobi University 'Maker Space', a project funded and supported by the Philips Foundation, UNICEF and Concern Worldwide alongside respected institutions in Kenya 

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