Passion for making a difference in society wins Team Namibia the number one spot at the #SANBioLabHack2018

Low cost Desktop Centrifuge machine

What do you get when you combine a team of Mechanical Engineering, Law and Information Technology students and challenge them to build basic but crucial lab equipment?

You get an award winning programmable centrifuge whose casing is made from a recycled steel sheet that covers the motor and other electronic components which are made in such a way that even if the tube adaptor breaks while spinning, it will not be exposed to the outside.

Born and bred in the Khomas Region – Windhoek, the #SANBioLabHack2018 overall winning team members, Abed Paulus, Stephen Shilongo and Loide Angula have at some point in their lives experienced a lack of medical services from their local clinics and hospitals, and observed a backlog in processing time of samples in medical laboratories in Namibia, and it was these harsh realities that became the motivation to design and build their prototype.

“We have noticed that there is a huge lack of laboratory equipment in our communities – blood tests are sometimes sent to far-away cities and towns just to run some tests and this can be time consuming for our communities,” said Team Namibia captain, Abed Paulus.

“Problem solving through scientific approach has always been at my best interest. I was the chairperson of my high school science club and earned several awards at the Nampower National Science Fair for four consecutive years since 2013. When the opportunity to participate in the SANBio LabHack was presented, my team and I thought this would be a great chance to employ scientific principles and develop practical solutions to the daily problems encountered in our communities,” said Paulus.

Prior to participating in the programme, the team had never seen a desktop centrifuge machine – this however did not stop them from attempting to build one.

“I believe that every problem has a possible solution and can be achieved through applying engineering and scientific methods. Before taking part in the programme we had not physically seen a centrifuge machine until our mentor Dr Sindisiwe Buthelezi from the Council for Scientific Industrial and Research (CSIR) took us to her lab,” said Paulus. 

According to Paulus, what sets their desktop centrifuge apart from the rest is that they have improvised on safety – the prototype comes with an switch that has been used to indicate whether the centrifuge is in motion and the user should be cautious as well as to show when the centrifuge is on.

“The centrifuge has also been made in such a way that it can actually put centrifuge tubes into circular motion at around 1000-2000 revolutions per minute and be controlled by the timing function efficiently while operating with minimum vibration,” he added. 

According to LabHack founder and University of Oxford researcher, Dr Louise Bezuidenhout, exposing science students to conduct practical experiments is of critical importance as it can provide students with an in-depth understanding of the biological systems that are being studied.

“Any graduate wishing to work as a scientist must have a good grasp of how to conduct experiments and produce data, and it is for this reason that LabHack aims to bring the ideas and ideology of the Open Hardware movement to the African educational community,” said Bezuidenhout.

“With LabHack we want to open up opportunities for equipping labs in novel and sustainable fashions by facilitating the open design of key laboratory equipment in, for and by Africans. This is a great opportunity for students and educators to take matters into their own hands by designing and building the equipment they need to learn,” added Bezuidenhout.

While these innovations effectively demonstrate the potential for low-resourced educational laboratories to be equipped with low-cost alternatives compared to expensive imported equipment, for Team Namibia the LabHack movement is just a manifestation of the beginning of revolutionising Africa’s health industry.

“The future of Africa is in our hands; the time has come for the youth to be the change they want to see,” youth activist and law student Angula added.

In her spare time, Angula participates in several science quizzes at Namibian regional level and also trains high school debate teams; she has also represented her country on a Regional Level at the SADC Summit Debates 2018.

The South African edition of the LabHack event was held at the CSIR Main Campus in Pretoria, with 17 university students from SADC member states participating. Team Namibia was among two other winning teams from Botswana and Zimbabwe.

The students divided themselves into groups of five with each team consisting of multidiscipline as a means to build strong collaborations. All teams were given 2 days to complete building polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines, centrifuges and magnetic stirrers using building materials and tools purchased at local hardware stores with a budget of R 2000.

Team Namibia was among two other winning teams from Botswana and Zimbabwe who both built PCR machines.