American Society of Mechanical Engineers Innovation Showcase in Nairobi (ISHOW)

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Another evidence to support the notion that Kenya is the country to beat in Africa as far as technology innovation is concerned came recently from an innovation showcase (ISHOW) sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). As far as high tech goes in Africa, Kenya seems to be creating all the good stuff. Who can forget MPesa, the highly successful international Internet payment system?

ASME of course is the leading professional society for mechanical engineers in the world, with headquarters in New York City. The top-ten achievements of the mechanical engineering profession include: the automobile, the Apollo (space) program, power (electricity) generation, agricultural mechanization, the airplane, (computer) integrated-circuit mass production, air-conditioning and refrigeration, computer-aided engineering technology, bioengineering, and the development of codes and standards. Thus, mechanical engineering is synonymous with the development of human civilization. Disciplines such as chemical engineering, nuclear engineering, agricultural engineering, material science and engineering, and aerospace engineering were originally part of mechanical engineering. I became a member of ASME in 1987, rising through the ranks to now be a Fellow of this world renowned professional society.

In the 3 July 2017 article in this column, I reported on “Startup Battlefield Africa Competition,” in which African tech startups will battle it out in Nairobi, Kenya, in a context sponsored by the American company with the name TechCrunch, website techcrunch.com, in partnership with Facebook. The overall winner in the competition will take home a cash award of twenty five thousand US dollars ($25,000). For this competition, startups can apply to one of three categories: social good, productivity and utility or gaming and entertainment. As long as your company fits into one of these categories and you meet the eligibility criteria listed in the original article, you are encouraged to apply. Several prominent startups are vying to be crowned the most promising startup in sub-Saharan Africa. The event will be hosted in front of a live audience in Nairobi and prominent judges in each category, with live streaming of the show on TechCrunch and Facebook so the rest of the world can tune in. The Startup Battlefield Africa event will take place on 11 October 2017 in Nairobi, Kenya at a location to be announced.

The ASME ISHOW in Kenya has already taken place; it was held on 25 May 2017 at the Golden Tulip Westlands Nairobi Hotel. The first competition of the 2017 ISHOW season, ISHOW India, was held in Bengaluru in April 2017. A third event, ISHOW USA, took place in the month of June in Washington DC.  

According to the August issue of the Mechanical Engineering magazine published by ASME, at the Kenya event, “10 ISHOW finalists presented prototypes of their hardware-led  innovations to a panel of judges and advisors that included entrepreneurs, academics and founders of venture-funded startup companies.” “The three grand-prize winners  - who hail from Uganda, Ghana, amd Kenya - will share in more than $500,000 in cash prizes and in-kind technical support, including an extensive design and engineering review of their products.” According to ASME magazine, the “Judges and advisors at ISHOW Kenya included Heather Feming, chief executive officer of Catapult Design; Kamau Gachigi, executive director of Gearbox; June Madete from Kenyatta University; Robert Karanja, chief executive officer of Villgro Kenya; and Thomas G. Loughlin, executive director of ASME.” The creators of three new social innovations - a device for detecting malaria, a portable science lab, and a glove that translates sign-language - were named the grand-prize winners at ISHOW Kenya.”

Roy Allela created Sign-io, which is a sign language-to-speech translation glove that has been developed to address the language barrier between sign-language users and the general public. Brian Gitta developed Matibabu, which is a noninvasive device used to test for malaria. It uses custom-made hardware which is then connected to a smartphone to aid easy diagnosis within households; while Charles Antipem created Science Set, which is an affordable, portable, practical and highly scalable science lab that can fit inside the bag and on the desk of students.

The other seven non-winning projects that made the final list were nevertheless quite interesting. I remember how the nurses at a hospital I went to a few months ago in Long Island, New York, had a hard time locating a vein in my arms from which to draw blood for a test. The invention by Emmanuel Kamuhire at ISHOW Kenya would have come in handy! Kamuhire is motivated by the fact that locating a patient’s vein can be difficult and could require some complex skills, and that various devices have been proposed for the purpose, but are “not suitable for low resource settings.” Vein Locator offers a low-cost solution “for first needle success.” Esther Mwangi’s Social Inclusion product increases access to sanitary items like pads, diapers, condoms among others, through locally-produced small-items-vending machines in Kenya. I’ll say ‘Way to Go,’ kids.