On a chilly Wednesday morning, walking into the quiet spacious Resilience Innovation Lab (RILab) on the first floor of Resilient Africa Network (RAN) above Kololo Airstrip, one gets the feeling that they are intruding on great minds thinking up innovations that will propel us into middle income status.
Young men and women are working on their laptops singlemindedly. One group is having an animated conversation at the end of the room. None of them looks up when we walk in. But, innovators feel comfortable among their peers, and this is where Margaret Nanyombi chooses to meet us.
She recently made 26 years and it shows in her playful openness and hobbies. “I relax by sleeping a lot!” she says, laughing.
However, what she does in her waking hours has attracted attention from the global technology world. When we meet, she is in a hurry to begin packing for a trip to Boston, USA. “We were nominated for The Innovation Marketplace happening at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from November 10-12, 2016. It is like a global Owino Market of innovations. I am not only going to participate; I am preparing to win.”
The Innovation Marketplace, hosted by the U.S. Global Development Lab, is a competition showcasing talent of students and young innovators who are using science, technology, innovation and partnerships to tackle global challenges.
Thinking up the innovation
In 2015, Nanyombi, together with three friends, invented the BVKit, which a woman can use to self-test for Bacterial Vaginosis (BV), a bacterium that increases the chances of contracting HIV, Chlamydia, Human Papillomavirus (HPV, which causes cervical cancer), and Gonorrhea.
“In March 2015, my friend lost her mother to cervical cancer, which had been diagnosed in the late stage. It was a tragedy because in 2014, she had lost her sister to liver cancer.
Some friends and I decided to find a solution to late cervical cancer diagnosis. We visited the cancer ward at Nsambya Hospital, where we found that it takes two weeks to get a proper diagnosis. We were discouraged.”
A nurse advised them to settle for an innovation that could detect one of the causes of cervical cancer, instead of the disease itself. “We discovered BV is dangerous because it does not present signs and symptoms in most women.
When it shows signs, they are similar to Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) so it is easy to confuse the two. We decided to settle for the BVKit.”
To make their innovation more helpful to women, the friends visited communities in Mukono, Katosi, and Nagalama to gather information about the challenges of diagnosing common infections.
“In rural areas, tests are carried out on the basis of signs and symptoms. If you do not have signs, then they assume you are healthy. They do not do the urinalysis test yet it gives accurate results. A hospital in Katosi which did the urinalysis only tested one parameter-pH, which is not enough to give a diagnosis.”
Some women in rural areas feared going to gynecologists because their husbands would accuse them of adultery, and the fees are prohibitive.
Instead, they boiled yellow flowers from a certain tree, and sat in the mixture for some hours to ease any pain, leaving any infections to grow unabated.
The innovators decided their BVKit would make it possible for women to self-test regularly instead of waiting a late diagnosis.
Progress of the BVKit
They started with a prototype Lego brick. Here, a woman would collect her urine sample, turn on the brick and connect it to a mobile phone App (created by the innovators) using Bluetooth.
“The Lego brick picks values from the urine using LED light and sends them to the App, which computes and gives results,” Nanyombi explains. “However, after testing, we found this method gave a 50 per cent accuracy, and a doctor advised us to delay rolling out.”
They returned to the lab and worked on another prototype which uses a pH sensor connected to a mobile App using Bluetooth. This gave them 70 per cent accuracy. Currently, they are working on a third prototype targeted towards achieving 90 per cent accuracy of diagnosis of signs and symptoms of Bacterial Vaginosis.
Challenges of innovation
The greatest huddle for most innovators, or budding innovators, is money. “In the beginning, it was hard because we were using our own money to fund our work, but later we won a Youth Spark Innovation Grant worth $5,000 (Shs17,572,100) from Resilient Africa Network, which helped us with our research.”
Innovation is hard work and can be slow and demotivating. The first award the girls won was the 2015 National Technovation Challenge. “We only got a certificate and the girls were demoralised.
We had been planning on what we would do with the prize money. One wanted to buy a laptop, another wanted a new handbag. This was their breaking point.”
Nanyombi attributes her decision to continue alone to curiosity. “My phone is the first thing I look at every morning. I asked myself whether I could use it for something to improve my health and empower other women to take their health into their own hands.
Innovation comes from personal initiative; from deep down. I have been through situations where I am scared to tell a gynecologist about the colour of discharge. To get a better diagnosis, he will send you for a lab test or scan, and there, you will encounter another man. Meanwhile, the financial costs are increasing.”
Nanyombi is now working with two other people; Douglas Were in South Africa on a UNFPA Fellowship, and Winifred Nafula who is studying in the USA. “If we get all the money we need, by January 2017 we can roll out onto the market. The BVKit will cost Shs200,000 and it is reusable and can be shared.”
How the BVKit will work
During their research, women commented that even with a BVKit test, some doctors may make them take additional tests with financial implications.
“This helped us to make the BVKit in such a way that a patient can self-test and send the results to a doctor, who will advise on the way forward. The doctor can also initiate a BVKit session for a patient. Also, the App, after giving the test results, can advise the women whether to see a doctor or not.”
A woman can take a urine sample and place the hardware into it. The hardware will pick the values in the urine and send them to the App for a diagnosis. The third prototype will also test for virginal yeast infections and UTIs.
The turning point
Working at Thinvoid Limited gave the innovator the exposure and experience she needed to begin working on her own inventions. “Winning the RAN Award also gave us the platform to showcase our projects.
Also, being raised by a single mother, Alice Nalubega, was a good experience. The sacrifices she made make me want to work harder to give her a better life and give back to the community.”
Nanyombi credits prayer as her mainstay advising people to always accept God’s will and wait on His timing.
One of her goals is girl and women empowerment. “As a Google Developer Group Leader for Makerere University, my team and I teach girls different technologies that can improve their knowledge, and then, ask them to mentor other girls at lower levels.
In the STEMPower Project, we work with girls in Lohana Academy and Luzira Secondary School using a curriculum containing science, technology, engineering, mathematics, entrepreneurship and girl empowerment. In this way, they are encouraged to study science subjects.”
Nanyombi has worked as a content developer for M-idea, as a social media expert for Juuchini, and as an application developer for Novariss. She is a Fellow of the TAP Program.
Tracing Nanyombi’s interest in technology
An only child of a single mother, Nanyombi gave up on mathematics and science after Senior Four. After Senior Six her mother enrolled her at Kyambogo University for a diploma in Library and Information Science.
“We did not have money but she did not want me to be a Senior Six dropout. Towards my final exams, I was short of Shs600,000 on my tuition and mom sold her land in Mukono to top up.
I graduated in 2011 but I was not satisfied. As a child studying at Lakeside Academy in Entebbe, mom took me to her office every Saturday to send emails to my cousin living abroad. I picked a growing interest in computers. After Kyambogo, I wanted to study IT.”
But first, she had to find tuition, so she worked for one and a half years at Thinvoid Limited, a software developer. “The first year at Makerere University in 2012 was good, but the second year was tough because money was scarce. In 2015, I took a break from school and started researching into many things.
I was bored and I needed something to keep me employed.” Towards the end of 2015, Nanyombi got a tweet from Women Deliver saying her innovation would be a good fit for one of the events at their 2016 Global Conference.
“I filled the forms and in May 2016 they sent an email telling me I had been accepted. I did not realise the impact of that conference until the BVKit was listed among the top ten applications impacting women across the world. I got a chance to showcase the project on the global stage in Denmark. I have since learnt the impact of social media, and the value of putting yourself out there.”
Revealing an invention before it is on the market is risky because unscrupulous people – who have the funds – can steal your idea and roll out before you.
Intellectual theft is something Nanyombi has worried about, “But, everyone knows the BVKit is mine and my name is already out there. So, I am safe. Besides, my end goal is to provide a means for women to have a say in their health.”