‘It’s unfair to see how some people cannot get a visa for a conference’

Access and sustainability are the drivers for PhD candidate Karlheinz Samenjo’s work designing a medical device for women in Africa.

Karlheinz Samenjo: “Together with TU Delft I would like to see how we can have a kind of hub in Africa where we can collaborate more at a grassroots level as opposed to over long distances.” (Photo: Heather Montague)

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“I’m Cameroonian and when I was about 18, I moved to Kenya and it became home for me. I came to TU Delft in 2019 to do a master’s in Integrated Product Design and then I started a PhD. My goal was to join TU Delft Global Initiative to begin to develop solutions for the Global South, mostly for Kenya, but also for Nigeria and Cameroon. My work is focussed on developing medical devices, but I also work on things like diagnosis devices, for example devices to test for schistosomiasis water-based parasites. Together with Associate Professor Jan Carel Diehl, we run the Inclusive Global Health Lab. We develop medical devices for Africa and other communities in the Global South, but also consider things to do with the circular economy to enhance sustainability in the healthcare domain.

The device I’m developing right now is called the CHLOE Syringe Extension Device (SED). It is used to provide anaesthesia in the cervix during gynaecological procedures, like manual vacuum aspiration. When a woman goes through a miscarriage, they have to evacuate the uterus and this device administers pain medication. In many cases in Africa the tool for that is not available. The women have to go through these procedures with no pain medication and that can be very painful. We’re looking at how these devices can be used for a long period of time, and when they break how the materials can be recovered or repurposed to be used again. We think the circular economy and sustainability principles can help us create access to these devices, but also help us conserve materials that could be reused to make new medical devices.

The device itself doesn’t exist, so creating it is the first part of access. But in order to take it to market we need it to be very affordable. Our target price is about 500 Kenyan shillings, which is about USD 5. We don’t know yet if it’s achievable within the constraints of design and manufacturing but we should be able to establish that within a couple of years. We’re currently running a clinical trial in Kisumu, Kenya. We are testing it on about 200 patients to measure the effectiveness of the device itself and then we can take it to market. But it’s required by law to do a clinical trial first and if it’s successful we can offer the device after approval from legal bodies.

‘I would like to have one foot in science and the other foot in practice’

I’m very problem-solution oriented so when I see problem in a community, I want to solve it. In this case the idea came out of a visit to Kisumu, where a friend of mine is a doctor. She expressed a concern of women going through treatment without anaesthesia and wanted to do something to help. It became a project and then a PhD thesis and then a business. Most of my projects are like this: I see a need and I take action. Hopefully in a couple of years I will be done with the PhD. I’m still very keen on research and science because I think we can develop new ideas and technologies with practice. I would like to have one foot in science and the other foot in practice. Together with TU Delft I would like to see how we can have a kind of hub in Africa where we can collaborate more at a grassroots level as opposed to over long distances.

Most of the time people from the Global South need a travel visa to go to a conference. It’s unfair to see how some people cannot get a visa based on where you are from, or where you are assumed to be from. You can have a group of colleagues who all apply for the same visa, but one person won’t get it and they don’t even tell you why. I still have not been able to get a visa to the UK and I don’t know why. Our goal in academia is sharing scientific knowledge and I just want to be able to go around the world and showcase what we’re developing. Sometimes I have to really think twice to pick a conference now. If it requires a visa, I might not go.

There was a big movement online last month with many scientists in Africa boycotting conferences abroad. First of all, I understand there are fears with the whole immigration issue and it’s difficult for countries to manage who comes in and who goes out. With people being displaced it’s a big issue now. But the visas could be better organised. It’s a system issue, it’s not a people issue. I’m also keen to see conferences go to countries that are affected by the issues. If it’s about health for the Global South, then let’s go to the Global South. Then you can also go there and see what people are talking about.

I have colleagues from Nepal who want to come to the Netherlands and they had to delay trips to attend scientific exchanges due to visa issues. It makes collaboration much more difficult and I think governments could try to work this out. If they think they can’t do it we, the design community in TU Delft, could help them think it through. If you’re not from the side of the world that faces this issue you would not know this because you can just go where you want. I think TU Delft could make this a priority so that their researchers don’t have to feel this way about conferences or collaboration. That would even enhance how we collaborate. For scientists, it’s very important that we collaborate and a visa shouldn’t be an issue.”

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Heather Montague / Freelance writer

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