When Malawian engineer Ruth Mtuwa was a child, she visited a sick family member in the hospital and was shocked to see that almost no medical equipment was working.
This realization made her want to help, setting her on the path to becoming a biomedical engineer.
Today, the 21-year-old research assistant has managed to bring a number of medical innovations to life – including a low-cost nebulizer and blood pressure monitoring device – despite tight funding and overseas competition. overwhelming.
“I thought if we were designing on our own equipment, it should be easy to fix it ourselves if it breaks down,” said Mtuwa, tweaking the wires on a board at a lab in Thyolo, where she works at the Malawi University of Science and Technology. (HOMEWORK).
“The biggest challenge we face is resources…engineering designs are an iterative process,” she said, noting that without MUST’s equipment and funding, her innovations might not have been possible. never get past the costly stage of research by trial and error.
Mtuwa is one of dozens of young Malawian entrepreneurs dedicated to inventing or improving tech products, but many say their ideas are being killed by lack of funding and cheaper imports from countries like China. and Japan.
To help local tech innovations leapfrog the flood of foreign competitors, universities, banks and charities are providing resources and mentorship to the country’s young entrepreneurs, from graduates to those with no formal education.
Some of the biggest hurdles for young innovators are training and funding, said David Mkwambisi, director of MUST’s Industrial Research and Innovation Institute.
Most don’t know the proper process for bringing an idea to the global market, he said, such as the need for patents and copyrights.
“We’ve seen that those who have a unique innovation or idea take it public, whether it’s on YouTube or Facebook, which is already a mistake in the innovation landscape,” he said.
Since 2020, MUST has matched young Malawian innovators with experts who guide them on how to develop and market their designs to convince customers to avoid imports and buy local, Mkwambisi said.
“Most of the innovations from countries like China are only meant to be used temporarily and don’t support the economy, so we can be competitive,” he said.
In 2019, Malawi imported around $456 million worth of goods from China, more than 16% of its total imports, according to data from the Economic Complexity Observatory. Only South Africa sent more to the country that year.
But when Clément Kandodo’s biogas company, EcoGen, took on a foreign competitor last year, the issue was not price, but reputation.
Kandodo’s start-up, which uses biodigesters to convert organic waste into cooking gas and fertilizer, has launched a tender to expand its technology to a refugee camp in Malawi where they were already working, only to be beaten by an Israeli company which was not present in the country at the time.
The 28-year-old entrepreneur believes that even with EcoGen’s proven track record, the client viewed the larger, wealthier company as more trustworthy and reliable.
“Local businesses can deliver just like our international counterparts, but they need to be provided with loans and grants to do so,” Kandodo said by phone.
EcoGen’s knowledge of the field paid off after all, when Kandodo and his team were invited to join the project and help set up the systems.
Mkwambisi of MUST said the key to competing with foreigners on price and building customer confidence is Malawi’s young people.
Figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that around a quarter of the country’s population is between 15 and 29 years old.
“The country has enormous potential. The majority of people (here) are young and young people keep thinking and generating new ideas,” Mkwambisi said.
To better harness this potential, MUST has approached various financial institutions in Malawi to set up a venture capital fund to support local innovations, he added.
Although discussions are still in their early stages, he said several institutions have expressed interest.
The Ministry of Trade and Industry has been working with MUST since last year to promote local research and technology through a 30 million kwacha ($37,000) apprenticeship program.
“One (goal) is to identify innovators and incubate them so that their products are of good quality and can be produced in large quantities to meet customer demands,” the ministry spokesperson said. , Yamikani Kadzakumanja, in comments via email.
The Covid-19 pandemic has recently provided the spark for high-quality and scalable local innovation, Kadzakumanja noted.
He spoke of a project that sees six public universities working with local entrepreneurs, global charities, Malawi’s Ministry of Health and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to develop standard-compliant personal protective equipment. world.
UNDP spokesman Madalitso Mbendera said equipment produced under the initiative had been donated to schools, hospitals and the road traffic department, all of which would otherwise have used products imported from countries like China.
The struggle to differentiate themselves from foreign imports could benefit Malawi’s tech entrepreneurs, encouraging them to use local materials and adopt competitive pricing, said Mayamiko Nkoloma, an inventor and professor of telecommunications at the University of Malawi.
Nkoloma’s social enterprise iMoSyS is behind various health and telecommunications innovations, including a smart water management system that remotely monitors reservoir levels, generates water water usage and sends alarm notifications, among others.
Two of the country’s three water companies have adopted the system, with iMoSyS beating several foreign competitors for contracts, Nkoloma said.
He attributes this success to his ability to build relationships with his customers and explain how his innovations can solve their everyday problems.
“In Malawi, even the simplest products have parts that are imported, and even if you have locally made items, the price is higher (than imports),” Nkoloma said.
“We have to perfect (our products) so that they can be competitive.”
Pushing to come up with better and cheaper tech ideas than similar products from China could have the added benefit of creating millions of jobs for young minds in Malawi, he said.
That would be a huge boon for a country where, in 2019, more than a fifth of 15 to 24-year-olds were neither employed nor educated, according to the International Labor Organization.
“We must contribute not only to the introduction of new products. In terms of employment, we also need to do more,” Nkoloma said.