If you have travelled to a foreign country in the course of this pandemic, then you will agree with me how expensive, tiring and time consuming it has become to get a visa due to the numerous tests one must undertake. For the ones who have been tested at least once, you know how irritating the nasal swab is. Imagine having a more comfortable and cheaper method of testing without having the swabs in your nostrils and throat. Well great news, two young Kenyan girls invented a machine that only needs your breath to test for the virus, with instant results relayed straight to your phone.
I met up with Marietta Halima (16 years) and Swabrina Chepkemoi (17 years) at their school, St. Thomas Girls Secondary school, based in Kilifi town, Kilifi County in the Coastal part of Kenya. These two form 2 students who believe they’re change makers, developed a machine known as Rapid Covix Breathalyzer. It can test up to fifty people in a day and managed to scoop the top position in the nationwide 2021 Young Scientists Kenya National Science and Technology Exhibition, becoming the first female students to attain such a fete in the competition’s history.
At the moment, many African countries are still experiencing logistical challenges when it comes to mass testing, with a country like Ethiopia being forced to send samples to other counties for testing. A majority of African countries are importing the Covid-19 testing kits from the United States or China, which is very costly. Wouldn’t it be a relief if we had a solution from Africa, which would be less costly and more effective?
“It was devastating seeing the number of Covid-19 cases rising by the day. We lost very good doctors and nurses who selflessly sacrificed their lives to attend to the Covid patients. The current testing methods we have require physical contact which is very risky. That is why we thought of coming up with an alternative way of testing patients, without having to get into contact with them, thus minimizing the risk.
Our project can help even those shying away from the test to get tested,” said Marietta. Her real passion is in journalism, which she hopes to realize one day, but out of curiosity she chose to try out the science and innovation competition. She mentioned that this was her very first time participating in this competition.
“We encourage our students to use the knowledge and skills we impart to them in class to find sustainable solutions to problems being faced globally,” Mr. Boniface Keya, a Biology and Chemistry teacher in the school told me. He expressed his excitement at how Marietta and Swabrina were able to think outside the box and through his guidance, managed to come up with the award winning testing kit.
“The world is so dynamic. We will only be at par with the developed countries when we embrace science and technology,” argued Mr. Keya, a talk that he is already having with the girls of St. Thomas School. Through his guidance, Marietta and Swabrina began by coming up with a fluorescent microscope using a glass light which will be used in detecting viruses or any other respiratory infections, the main focus being on solving the Covid-19 challenge. One step led to another and after some modifications, they eventually ended up with the breathalyzer. According to Mr. Keya, this was a borrowed concept from what they had learnt in class about microbiology and microscopy.
“When you take a look at this contraption, its first impression might leave you wondering whether it can actually serve its set purpose due to its size. As small as it appears, it is capable of solving very big problems,” Swabrina told me. She has been passionate about science from a very tender age and loves everything to do with wires. Unlike Marietta, this was not her first invention. She has participated several times in science and innovation competitions and remembers an innovation they entered in the agricultural sector in 2020. It was about hydroponic smart farming, a method of growing plants that does not require soil.
Swabrina admits that it was not a smooth ride. They experienced various challenges, one being balancing between their classes and working on the project. They also experienced financial strains since there are materials that were not available in their school. They’re very grateful to their school principal who supported and helped them to purchase whatever they needed to ensure the project became a success. They also worked hand in hand with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Kilifi Centre in their research processes.
How It Works
“It is a friendly and affordable technique of testing and detecting respiratory infections which gives instant results. We have a fluorescent microscope that is used to detect bacteria and viruses, all one has to do is breathe on top of the glass led. We have a gas sensor that will detect whether the breath has metabolites like ammonia, methane or nitrogen oxide. There is a micro-control that will process the input and the output will be relayed via a buzzer that produces a sound upon detection of any of the metabolic gasses. It also contains a red LED light which equally confirms that a harmful gas has been detected. At first, we were using a smartphone to capture the image of the bacteria but after doing our modification, we decided to put together the fluorescent microscope and the breathalyzer. The casing of the breathalyzer is not handmade. We had to design it then send it to Nairobi for 3D printing since it isn’t available in our school,” the girls explained as they demonstrated it to me.
The Science Competition
St. Thomas Girls Secondary School has participated in the Young Scientists Kenya competition for several years but it never occurred to any of the teachers that their girls would come to scoop the best position in the competition one day. This year, they had a total of six projects with four managing top honors. “We never expected to win. It is still hard for me to believe that we are the champions of the 2021 YSK competition, it is still so surreal!” Swabrina confessed with mixed reactions of excitement.
The two girls scooped many awards as the overall winners, including a scholarship to Strathmore University in Nairobi once they clear their secondary school education. Other awards included smartphones and cash prizes. “I feel so humbled by their win since they are the first female students to win this competition since its inception,” Mr. Keya pointed out full of pride.
Their win was a motivation to many students in their school as many streamed to join the Science club. “This is just the beginning, we now feel encouraged to come up with even better problem-solving innovations,” they confirmed with enthusiasm.
The two brilliant innovators hope that their project will be adopted and developed to become better not only by the Kenyan Government but across the globe. This is because the device can be used in both the medical field and in schools as a learning and testing kit. “I believe that what a man can do a woman can do even better,” emphasized Marietta. This is a mantra that guides her on her day to day activities with her project partner echoing the same sentiments. “Women have power and I believe they can do whatever they set their mind to, it all narrows down to their mindset and attitude. Do not wait for opportunities to follow you, chase them to ensure you dreams come true,” concluded Swabrina.
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