Senegalese engineering students embark on the growing problem of coronaviruses in the West African state with inventions such as disinfectant vending machines and medical robots.
Young people from a high-level engineering school in the capital Dakar have turned their technical skills to lightening the pressure on services – and they are already in talks with hospitals about some of their innovations.
An example is a small robot, nicknamed “Dr. Car ‘, which will measure blood pressure and temperature of patients, according to students from the Ecole Supérieure Polytechnique de Dakar (ESP).
The university is considered one of the best in West Africa for engineering and technology, and is very selective, with 28 nationalities represented among its 4,000 students.
Lamine Mouhamed Kebe, one of the students who designed the robot, said the machine would reduce the exposure of doctors and nurses to infected patients and the use of expensive protective equipment.
“At some point … we realized that medical equipment was limited,” added the 23-year-old. “We can do something.”
Guided by a mounted camera and controlled via an app, doctors will also be able to communicate with patients via the robot, said Kebe, potentially allowing them to treat isolated people in hard-to-reach rural areas.
Increase in confirmed cases of Covid-19
The coronavirus epidemic in Senegal is pale compared to the situation in Europe and the United States infected with the virus.
But after a slow start, confirmed cases in the nation of some 16 million people are increasing.
And like other poor countries in the region, there is a fear that Senegal is ill-equipped to deal with a great epidemic.
Authorities have registered more than 1,700 cases to date, including 19 deaths. Hospital staff in Dakar are also starting to contract Covid-19.
Faced with an increased threat, Senegalese primary care physicians take young engineers seriously.
A first prototype designed by the students was essentially a small mobile cart, designed to transport equipment or meals to patients.
But Abdoulaye Bousso, head of an emergency department at a Dakar hospital, asked to rethink it to include mechanical arms capable of performing medical tests – an upgrade the students are currently working on.
“It’s a whole process,” said Bousso, adding that the robot could reduce its use of expensive bibs and dresses, which must be thrown away.
Focus on practicality
Ndiaga Ndiaye, an ESP professor in charge of commercializing inventions, said the university has long focused on practical projects and entrepreneurship, which meant that students were ready to act when the virus had bursts.
The robot is “far from a gadget,” he said, and could be produced on a larger scale when ready.
“We are a public institution. There is a concept that ties us all together, and that is service to the community,” he said.
Other students have designed simpler devices that they hope will help fight the disease in Senegal.
Gianna Andjembe, a master’s student in electrical engineering, designed an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser that he believed could reduce the need for school and hospital staff to supervise hand washing.
“It’s very simple, it’s basic,” said the 26-year-old.
“As scientists, as engineers, we have to face the challenges and really take our destiny in hand,” added Andjembe.
The coronavirus has turned the lives of ESP students upside down.
The lectures are now videotaped and students who used to tinker in the labs until late at night must now rush home due to a curfew from dusk to dawn.
But the crisis has also given meaning to young engineers.
“What has changed is the responsibility,” said robot maker Kebe before adding that the students also felt “a lot more patriotism.”