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Themes: Assistive & Accessible Technology

GDI Hub Visit to Kenya: Kilimanjaro Blind Trust Africa and InnovateNow (Part 2)

Colour photograph of Maryam. Maryam is wearing sunglasses and is outside

Maryam Bandukda

Research Fellow

Last week of May 2022, GDI Hub’s Accelerate Team, Cathy Holloway (Academic Director and co-founder GDI Hub), Daniel Hajas (Innovation Manager), and Maryam Bandukda (Research Fellow) visited the Innovate Now team and attended the first in-person Inclusive Africa conference in Nairobi, Kenya. During the visit, the team had brilliant opportunities to meet the InnovateNow core team and ventures participating in the current cohort of the program. I have documented my visit and personal reflections in this blog.

InnovateNow Team and AT Entrepreneur Members
Innovate Now team and AT entrepreneur members

It was great to meet the InnovateNow core team, Bernard Chiira, Joan Orina, and Enos Weswa along with Suparna Biswas, Executive Director of the Kilimanjaro Blind Trust Africa (KBTA) who host the InnovateNow team in Nairobi. KBTA is leading initiatives to improve access to assistive technologies (AT) for education across Africa. As part of their recent initiatives, KBTA are working with schools across Africa to provide assistive technologies (braille readers) for equitable access to education to children with visual impairments.

Innovate Now is part of GDI Hub Accelerate - our innovation arm which delivers scale studios, acceleration programmes, a network, ecosystem development, world leading coaching and knowledge dissemination to accelerate impact through partnership and collaboration.

One of the current challenges to AT reach in Africa is the cost of accessible literacy devices and training for teachers and children with visual impairments. As the majority of braille devices cost upwards of £1000 estimate, there is a clear barrier to entry in the African and other lower-middle income (LMIC) markets. Lower-cost and innovative solutions, such as Tacilia have the potential to significantly reduce the cost of AT procurement and therefore improve affordability for schools and individuals. Furthermore, many regions across Africa and other LMICs lack stable internet connection due to which is a prerequisite for access to training materials and accessible learning materials. According to the International Telecommunication Union, in general, less than 25% of the population across Africa have access to internet connection - even lower than 10% in East and Central Africa.

GDI Hub’s InnovateNow programme, launched in 2019, is working with local AT innovators and entrepreneurs to address some of the similar challenges faced by disabled population in Kenya and across other African countries. With a community of 60+ innovators who have launched 30 AT innovations and a network of over 100 AT experts, InnovateNow is positioned as Africa’s first AT Innovation and Startup ecosystem. One of the ventures, HopeTechPlus, has developed groundbreaking computer vision based technology to support blind and partially sighted people in independent navigation in large indoor spaces and makes it easier to find door entrances. Syna Consulting are developing inclusive water and sanitation solutions providing access to clean water and portable custom toilets.

It was wonderful to meet the InnovateNow team and the IN members, theAT entrepreneurs, in-person. The meet-up also provided a space for a group reflection on the challenges the entrepreneurs have experienced. In any innovation ecosystem, product development and scaling is a complex and daunting undertaking. But perhaps more so, for AT entrepreneurs as the societal attitudes and stigma against AT users presents a greater barrier to AT adoption and continued use. IN members also discussed the challenges to accessing potential AT users due societal, geographical, and economical barriers and a lack of an adequate ecosystem to support AT business viability.

Speaking to the African AT entrepreneurs and advocates at the conference and those part of the InnovateNow cohort helped me understand the sociocultural, infrastructural, and economical challenges against AT innovation and entrepreneurship. Increasing public sector funding in AT and national programmes, such as the Kenyan Accessibility standard for ICT products and services, are important in creating equitable access to products and services. Self-advocacy and participation of disabled people is paramount in achieving any success for equal rights and access to AT. As mentioned by Irene Mbari-Kirika, founder of inABLE at the Inclusive Africa conference, we need to create safe spaces and platforms to amplify and empower the voices of disbaled people to self-advocate for their rights and share their experiences. This not only includes physical public forums and media but also online social media and formal platforms to educate people on their rights and fight stigma around disability. Mainstream websites and search engine accessibility is also crucial for an equitable access to the wealth of knowledge that exists on the internet.

My role as research fellow on impact storytelling and community collaboration aims to create platforms for self-advocacy and collectivising to influence AT adoption and public and private sector investment in AT innovation. Based on the conversations over the week, I am excited to develop a series of podcast interviews with AT entrepreneurs highlighting their journeys and the challenges surrounding AT entrepreneurship in Africa. The podcast series will aim to raise their profile and drive effort towards supporting AT entrepreneurship and adoption in Africa and wider LMIC.

Of course, a visit to Nairobi would be incomplete without a quick visit to the wildlife parks. Before heading off to the airport, I visited the Giraffe Centre and the Animal Orphanage and even got a chance to feed the resident lion cubs and ‘Talik’ the elderly leopard, which was a rare encounter - definitely one for the bucket list.

For now, I bid kwaheri ya kuona, Kenya! (until we meet again).