Next Generation of Problem Solvers – Team Botswana SANBioLabHack 2018

PCR Machine

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education in Africa is challenged by shortages of laboratory equipment in teaching institutions. In South Africa, according to an online Fintech article, 86% of SA’s 23 589 public schools do not have science labs.

While these alarming statistics may apply to the SA context, sadly this problem is also found in every developing nation and Botswana is no exception.

A new generation of problem solvers who work in various fields of biosciences are eager to turn things around in their country.

The Bioscience Organisation, which is a society for biosciences graduates that seek to promote entrepreneurial development skills, research and collaboration and commercialisation of small biotechnology ideas, said they are ready to take their PCR prototype to market after winning 2nd place at the SANBio LabHack 2018 last week at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The team is made of Keagile Bati studying Biochemistry, Nkosinathi Joseph studying mechanical engineering at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) together with Mooketsi Phori who is studying network security and computer forensics at Botho University in Botswana.

“It is not a secret that most of our public schools are under equipped with scientific equipment, therefore instead of complaining about it we want to address the challenge and come up with a  solution,” Team  Botswana Captain and SANBio Student Ambassador, Keagile Bati said.

After being tasked to find technical solutions for everyday challenges that can be developed with a bit of ingenuity and limited resources, Bati’s team rose to the occasion and built a low cost Thermocycler (PCR machine).

“Unlike other disciplines, science and technology go beyond textbook theory and science laboratory equipment allows students to interact directly while also getting a first-hand learning experience when working on different experiments. And while this may be our first prototype, we believe that we are one step closer to encouraging and offering a deeper understanding of science to both high school and university students,” he added.

Apart from the fact that it only cost the team R 1700 for all the components, Bati believes that what sets their prototype apart from the rest is that it is made from plywood, peltier pads and a programmable microprocessor among other components mainly sourced from local hardware stores. Even more encouraging is the fact that the teams worked on their designs and specifications over a three week period and built their prototype over three days.

Bati’s thermal cycler was assessed on the following criteria: excellence of design, completeness of documentation, frugalness of hardware usage, and ease of equipment use by downstream user – and the prototype earned a well-deserved 2nd place.

Team Botswana hopes to continue working on their prototype with the possibility of building more frugal laboratory equipment for underprivileged schools in their communities and subsequently creating employment opportunities. 

The LabHack model was conceived by Dr Louise Bezuidenhout and Helena Webb, both researchers at the University of Oxford and piloted in Zimbabwe in 2018.  LabHacks are intended as competitive and educational events where multidisciplinary teams of students compete around three design challenges to build low-cost laboratory equipment.  

According to Bezuidenhout, the design philosophy is centred around Open Source Hardware movement, which is a rapidly growing community dedicated to finding ways to making laboratory equipment in situ. The movement is also about creating an open, online community that freely shares designs and expertise, subsequently demonstrating how a wide range of laboratory equipment can be made using crowdsourced knowledge, and locally sourced hardware.

“The absence of basic laboratory equipment has large implications on slowing down research and has knock-on implications for the education of undergraduate and postgraduate students. It is for these reasons that Open Hardware events such as LabHack are continuously seeking to challenge the way we view laboratories in both research as well as diagnostics,” said Bezuidenhout.

Challenges could include polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines, centrifuges and magnetic stirrers which are specifically chosen as basic laboratory equipment used daily in STEM learning laboratories. Through the design process and thinking through the practical elements students are also encouraged to think about the potential end user, durability and versatility of their designs. The prototypes are intended for use and this encourages them to approach innovation from a low resource and user centric model.

The South African edition of LabHack was supported and hosted by SANBio /BioFISA II Programme which is a shared biosciences research development and innovation platform for working collaboratively to address some of Southern Africa’s key biosciences issues in health nutrition and health-related intervention areas.   The LabHack was one of the initiatives by which SANBio is supporting human capacity building and building capability and encouraging youth to be more engaged in Biosciences, after all these are the future scientists of the region.