Nairobi IEEE Students Design a Low-Cost Ventilator Using Locally Sourced Materials

Members of the IEEE Kenyatta University Student Branch with the Tiba-Vent ventilator they built.
Members of the IEEE Kenyatta University Student Branch with the Tiba-Vent ventilator they built.
Photo: Fidel Makatia Omusilibwa

By: The Institute’s Editorial Staff

THE INSTITUTE Members of the IEEE Kenyatta University Student Branch, in Nairobi, Kenya, [left] have designed and built a low-cost ventilator to combat COVID-19. The project aims to address the shortage of mechanical ventilators in Kenya, says IEEE Student Member Fidel Makatia Omusilibwa. He is studying electrical and electronics engineering at Kenyatta University and is chair of the student branch there. He leads the ventilator team, which includes 15 students from the university’s schools of engineering, medicine, nursing, and pharmacy. He says the university also offered assistance in a number of ways.

The Institute asked Omusilibwa about the ventilator.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Explain how your project works.

Our ventilator goes by the name Tiba-Vent. Tiba is a Swahili word for cure. It makes use of the principles of ventilation, fluid mechanics, control engineering, software engineering, and signal processing.

The ventilator has two inputs for clean, compressed air and oxygen gas. The two are blended in a regulated tank and then passed through an oxygen sensor that controls the blending depending on settings. Two valves are used to control the air passed to and from the patient.

The air is humidified to make it warm and moist before inspiration. The exhaled air from the patient is passed through a filter. Its pressure is governed by the exhalation valve.

Pressure sensors and flow sensors are employed to monitor pressures, flow rate, and volume. A graphical user interface has been implemented. Through this, the doctor can interact with the machine and set parameters like tidal volume [the volume of air entering and exiting the lungs after each breath], and FiO2 [the concentration of oxygen that a person inhales]. Alarms have also been integrated to give alerts for a number of incidents. These include the depletion of oxygen supply to the ventilator or the delivered pressure is higher or lower than the doctor intended.

Tiba-Vent is portable and has a backup [battery] in case of a power failure.

Why is Tiba-Vent better suited to increasing the number of ventilators in the country than existing ventilators?

A man demonstrating a ventilator.
IEEE Kenyatta University student branch chair Fidel Makatia Omusilibwa shows how the ventilator works. 
Photo: Fidel Makatia Omusilibwa

It’s easier to manufacture since 90 percent of the materials used are acquired locally in Kenya. Also, since it’s made locally, it becomes cheaper than imported ones for two reasons: less tax is charged and its [design is] optimized to be cost effective. Cost was one of the parameters on the table during design [discussions]. This will definitely increase the number of ventilators in Kenya by a large margin.

What challenges have you faced, and how did you overcome them?

The main challenge we faced initially was a lack of finances to commence prototyping. Therefore, we did everything on paper and created simulations. Our university got involved and sponsored us in the implementation of the prototype.

Also, we did not have an actual ventilator to refer to [when we first started designing Tiba-Vent]. We had to create a design from the basic principles of mechanical ventilation. Due to this, we made a few mistakes that cost us time. Later, our lecturers joined us and guided us, which made the prototyping phase faster.

How close are you to the final product?

It is currently in clinical trials.

What is the potential impact of the technology?

Tiba-Vent aims to increase the number of ventilators in Kenya from 500 units to more than 30,000. It will aid in treating COVID-19 and other respiratory ailments. It will also help make Kenya a manufacturing country for medical equipment.

How has your university supported you?

The university gave us a space to work in, [room] accommodations for the days we work on the project, meals, and access to any university facility we might need. It also bought all the resources we required to make the ventilator a reality, including tools and equipment.

The university also formed a committee of lecturers from the schools of engineering, medicine, pharmacy, nursing, and economics to mentor and guide us. The team also included professionals from said fields. The university also paid for materials we needed.

How many people are involved, and how many IEEE members are involved?

Out of the 15 students involved, 11 are IEEE student members. The students are studying biomedical engineering, biosystems engineering, civil engineering, electrical and electronics engineering, and mechanical engineering. We belong to the IEEE Kenya Section. We are ambassadors of advancing technology for humanity.

Attention IEEE members: are you part of a team responding to the COVID-19 crisis? We want to hear from you! Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, if you are helping deal with the outbreak in some way, let us know. Send us accounts of anywhere from 200 to 800 words, or simply give us a rough idea of what you are doing and your contact information. Write to: k.pretz@ieee.org.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 6 July 2020.