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Recycling one plastic container at a time to enhance learning

Two University of Nairobi students have come up with affordable 3D digital microscopes made from used water bottles to help schools teach better

Milliam Murigi @millymur1

Teaching aids, such as microscopes, are critical for a holistic learning experience in schools. However, in developing countries, learning aids are an unaffordable luxury for schools.

This is the reason Amos Mwangi and Solomon Gitau from the University of Nairobi, Upper Kabete campus, who are part of Digital Blacksmith Networks, decided to come up with affordable 3D digital microscopes made from recycled plastic bottles.

Digital Blacksmiths is a project that began in 2015, started by UK-based Tech for Trade. This is a charity organisation that works at the intersection of technology, poverty alleviation and economic development.

It is a social venture builder, incubating ideas around identified technology for economic value-chain opportunities, turning successful ideas into ventures, and finally helping ventures receive external capital and support.

“We believe that the 3D printing technology has the potential to be one of the disruptive innovations that might significantly contribute to poverty alleviation. However for 3D printing to have real impact at the local and community level, initiatives need to be economically sustainable,” says Gitau.

Even though they cannot entirely remove plastic waste from landfills, the duo believe their efforts will eliminate at least 90 per cent of plastic waste.

Packaging accounts for two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste. Food, toys and water often come encased in plastic. Less than 10 per cent of plastic is recycled despite the fact that most containers, such as fruit containers, milk jugs and shampoo bottles are easily recyclable.

The duo source their raw material from four restaurants in Loresho. They then clean the plastic material manually, chop them to small flakes using a machine before taking them to the extruder to produce 3D printer filaments. The filaments are then used to make the microscopes.

“We have partnered with restaurants because we want to have clean raw material from the start. This helps us come up with products that meet international standards,” says Gitau.

“Our goal is to work with materials that are locally and ethically sourced, driving down costs, adding value to the work of waste collectors and opening up markets for savvy makers across the continent,” he adds.

Currently most of the filaments used the world over come from China, a factor that motivated the duo to embark into the business to mint out locally made filaments.

Though their aim is to concentrate on teaching aids, Gitau says that they can make anything as long as it does not exceed the set measurement of 20 metres width, height and length.

He says that the project, which started in September last year, has seen more than 50 3D digital microscopes developed and 40 of them were given out to schools during the pilot projects (in the second and third terms) which ended this year.

The pilot project was highly successful. Since most schools want to get more machines, the duo is planning to commercialise the business, selling a single microscope at Sh4,000. This will lower the cost of the device which is currently going for more than Sh25,000.

“Digital microscopes, unlike conventional ones, can be connected to a laptop or any display. They are also much cheaper compared to the current products in the market”.

Once they commercialise the product, the duo will start manufacturing microscopes for laboratory use.

And what will happen once the governments bans use and production of single use plastic?

Gitau says that even if the ban is effected today they will not be affected because currently there is a lot of plastic waste in the market and landfills.

Apart from teaching aids the duo also makes 3D printers using recycled material. “We are in talks with Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development to include our product (digital microscope) in the new curriculum before we venture into other teaching aids.”

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