Brace for Impact: Recognizing Sustainable Engineering Solutions with the 2022 Africa Prize

The shortlist for the 2022 Africa Prize highlights 16 engineers making a big difference in communities across the continent.

By rethinking how we approach problems, engineering entrepreneurs are helping to develop sustainable solutions to the climate crisis. Instead of trying to adapt outdated and ineffective systems, many engineers are looking to disrupt how we think about everything from energy production to health care.

With the Africa Prize, the United Kingdom’s Royal Academy of Engineering aims to provide financial and mentor-based support for engineering entrepreneurs who are developing sustainable solutions to problems facing communities across Africa and the world. With a greater focus on the socioeconomic impact of engineering innovations, the prize is designed to recognize emerging technology supporting community resilience and environmental sustainability. Since 2014, the award has recognized engineering excellence across Africa and entrepreneurs awarded the prize have created over 1,500 jobs and raised more than $14 million in grants and equity.           

The shortlist of finalists for the 2022 Africa Prize was recently announced, with 16 entrepreneurs selected from hundreds of applicants. The finalists will enter a period of intensive one-on-one and group mentorship and receive business and communications training from a global network of experts. Following the eight-month period of support, four finalists will pitch their improved innovation to the judges for the chance to receive the first-place prize of £25,000 or be awarded one of the three runners-up prizes of £10,000. The funding will support the continued expansion of each entrepreneur’s innovation and extend its impact across Africa.

“Once again, we have received an inspiring calibre of applications for the Africa Prize. This year’s shortlist demonstrates how technology can be used to drive development from a grassroots level, and we look forward to supporting these innovators in expanding their impact across Africa,” said John Lazar, CBE FREng, Africa Prize judge.

Supporting Safe Delivery of Vaccines with the VacciBox

After witnessing the challenges of rural vaccine distribution in Kenya, Norah Magero invented VacciBox, a portable, solar-powered fridge designed to deliver life-saving medicines, blood and tissues. As a result, Magero and her life-saving technology were shortlisted for the 2022 Africa Prize in recognition of the enormous potential for VacciBox to improve vaccine access and equity.

Norah Magero with her VacciBox technology outside a rural health care clinic in Kenya. (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy of Engineering.)

Norah Magero with her VacciBox technology outside a rural health care clinic in Kenya. (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy of Engineering.)

In 2018, Magero had a child and moved from Nairobi to a smaller community in Kenya, where she experienced firsthand the difficulties of getting infants vaccinated in rural areas. Often, when parents bring their children to rural health facilities, they are told that there is insufficient vaccine supply and are given a time to return to the clinic. But many people do not return to later appointments, and children remain unvaccinated due to the unreliable supply of vaccines.

While working as a technology manager at her local rural hospital, Magero also noticed that frequent power outages and vaccine shortages affected the delivery of these medications to children. She saw a dire need for a reliable, portable vaccine storage solution to ensure that rural communities can deliver vaccines safely.

Currently, the standard method used for vaccine delivery to remote areas is to transport and deliver the supply on ice packs. However, this method can usually only keep supplies cold for a few hours, and if families miss their appointments, they lose out on getting their children vaccinated.

VacciBox is a 40L refrigerator that can keep vaccines and other heat-sensitive medications cold for 24 hours. But VacciBox is much more than a refrigerator. Magero describes it as a whole-package solution with data monitoring and collection embedded into the device. Health care facilities can remotely track vaccine delivery with GPS and monitor vaccine temperature in real time to alert distributors of any issues before they spoil the vaccine supply.

“One of the biggest challenges was fitting our vision into a simple box that can be easily manufactured,” said Magero, in describing the VacciBox technology. Once they had a working prototype, Magero and her team worked to refine the technology to meet the standards of the World Health Organization (WHO).

With their ingenious human-centered design, Magero and her team have grown from three to seven and have tested VacciBox in an off-the-grid health care facility and provided door-to-door vaccine delivery in partnership with a second rural clinic.

Now, with the mentorship and support from the Africa Prize network, Magero and her team are looking to improve their refrigeration technology and software supports for real-time data analytics. The goal is to expand the use of VacciBox within Kenya and potentially in Eastern Africa. Magero is also interested in expanding the device’s reach globally, as many rural areas in Asia also need an improved cold chain for vaccine delivery.

Crib A’glow: A “Bright” Solution for the Treatment of Infant Jaundice

When Virtue Oboro’s son was born, he suffered from severe infant jaundice. Thankfully, phototherapy can cure the condition, but it can lead to brain damage, hearing loss, and death if left untreated. This can be debilitating for families without access to treatment, which is common in many rural areas, including parts of Nigeria.

Following the experience with her son, Oboro founded Tiny Hearts Technology and developed her first product: Crib A’glow. The portable, solar-powered phototherapy device can treat infant jaundice both in clinics and homes, even without reliable access to electricity. With her technology, Oboro was also shortlisted for the 2022 Africa Prize.

Virtue Oboro with the Crib A’glow device: a portable, solar-powered phototherapy unit to treat infant jaundice. (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy of Engineering.)

Virtue Oboro with the Crib A’glow device: a portable, solar-powered phototherapy unit to treat infant jaundice. (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy of Engineering.)

One issue with previous devices was that the industrial light source they used led to infant fever, dehydration, and even skin burns. With Crib A’glow, Oboro used a human-centered design to create an LED-based device that increases light absorbency for infant skin without causing dehydration or burns. The design of Crib A’glow focuses the light on the infant to increase recovery times, as opposed to conventional devices found in 70 percent of Nigerian hospitals that do not properly focus light.

When it came to challenges, Oboro and her team faced the most issues with the device’s outer shell. A collapsible box may sound simple, but she said her team had to be innovative to make Crib A’glow both portable and comfortable for infants. Through iterative prototypes, they landed on a final system that can be mass manufactured, and there are now over 3,000 units in use. With a team of 24 employees and over 800 volunteers, Oboro aims to distribute Crib A’glow units throughout Nigeria and eventually all West Africa.

“One of the most exciting things that I have experienced is the access to professionals from diverse fields,” said Oboro, in discussing the significance of being selected as a finalist for the Africa Prize. “Being a part of this prize is coming at the best time for my team and I.”

Oboro describes herself as a mother, artist and social entrepreneur. In partnership with her husband, she has created a device that more efficiently treats infant jaundice while being comfortable for babies and families to use.

“Crib A’glow is an appropriate, affordable and effective solution to a simple but life-threatening problem that more than half of African families will face. It has the potential to change millions of lives and has already saved thousands,” added Oboro.

Helping Scale Solar Energy Adoption with Peec REM

In 2016, a group of engineers led by Philip Kyeswa identified a core problem with solar energy usage in Uganda: monitoring and troubleshooting solar energy collection in remote areas. In response, Kyeswa and his team created Peec Energy and developed a remote solar energy monitoring system aptly named Peec REM. With the team’s hardware and software, Kyeswa is helping companies to monitor and protect their assets with solar installations in remote areas and is now recognized as a finalist for the 2022 Africa Prize.

“We have the potential to impact millions of people living in off-grid areas by making mini-grid installations more practical and locally appropriate. There’s so much room for growth and local adaptations in East Africa to really make the most of new technologies and bring power to more households,” said Kyeswa.

The hardware of Peec REM is installed in the upstream development of solar mini-grids. The software components can then monitor battery health, temperature, voltage, current, consumption and more in real time. All the data collected is then used in machine learning/artificial intelligence (ML/AI) applications to optimize energy consumption and production in each mini-grid.

Additionally, the device has metering capabilities that allow households to measure consumption and pay for electricity with micropayments. The option to e-transfer funds allows for rural solar installations as families can pay for electricity even without access to a local bank.

Philip Kyeswa demonstrates part of the Peec REM monitoring software. (Image courtesy of Royal Academy of Engineering.)

Philip Kyeswa demonstrates part of the Peec REM monitoring software. (Image courtesy of Royal Academy of Engineering.)

Altogether, Peec REM allows solar companies to monitor their assets in real time and ensure that solar energy can be delivered to rural areas, expanding the sustainability and accessibility of electricity in Uganda.

“Passion brought us to where we are right now,” said Kyeswa, in describing the Peec REM device and his constantly growing team. With the original team composed entirely of engineers, the group initially struggled to develop a business model and expand its product. However, with the intensive mentorship offered by the Africa Prize, Kyeswa hopes to further expand the reach of the remote monitoring system.

Currently, Kyeswa and his team are setting up a research and development lab to support the local manufacturing of 90 percent of all hardware components. The new R&D facility will support full-scale manufacturing and improve the scalability of their hardware and software products. The goal is to expand the use of the technology throughout Uganda and then potentially in East Africa to help accelerate the adoption of solar mini-grids.

Sustainable Solutions Will Be the Future of Engineering in a Climate Crisis

The goal of the Africa Prize makes it clear that the socioeconomic impact and sustainability of engineering solutions are core to their success in emerging markets. The expansive alumni network of the prize highlights how investing in disruptive technologies can holistically support communities across diverse industries. In addition to the three finalists highlighted above, other selected finalists used their engineering expertise to take advantage of real-time data analytics and renewable energy sources to create sustainable solutions for agriculture, health care and more.

Later this year, the Royal Academy of Engineering will announce the winner of the 2022 Africa Prize. But in the meantime, these entrepreneurs will benefit from intensive mentoring and increased visibility of their technologies to help them expand across Africa.

With a wealth of start-up companies and engineering entrepreneurs throughout Africa, the Africa Prize is one way to recognize the incredible innovation shaping the continent’s approach to a sustainable future.