Of Feet, Fleas and 3D Printing


by Roy Ombatti -

I have been involved in many projects during my time at the Fablab in Nairobi and I personally enjoy those that leverage technology for change and development. I am most interested about the space for technology in development because I feel it is in this space that making is most needed. I believe very much in empowering people, primarily the poor, with the necessary knowledge and skills to make them problem solvers. Hailing from a developing country, this has never made more sense to me than it does now. Gone are the days of handouts and donor funds. That technique is clearly not working in the fight against poverty. If you ask me, the approach should be more practical as well as personal. The ‘poor’ should be taught how to solve their own problems and supported through this process rather than throwing money at them. And this is where making comes in; be it high- or low-tech type of making. I look up to Amy Smith, founder of MIT’s D-lab, which is building a global network of innovators to design and disseminate technologies that meaningfully improve the lives of people living in poverty. She said, “We need to think of poor people not as vulnerable, but as capable. We have to think of it not as a billion mouths to feed, but two billions hands to engage.”

With that being said, I would like to talk about a personal project of mine that I have been working for the past two years called ‘Happy Feet’. It involves leveraging 3D printing to fight jiggers that cause foot deformities and sometimes death.

The jigger is a small flea measuring about 1mm in size that is found in dirty environments. It feeds on the flesh and blood of its warm-blooded hosts. The female jigger buries itself in the host’s flesh and lays eggs. This results in a black spot that is typically itchy and painful. Scratching raptures the sac and spreads the infestation. There is stigma against the infection and it affects millions of people, most of whom are children. There have been 265 reported deaths as a result of the jigger menace in Kenya alone.

Besides poor hygiene, the common denominator among the people who are affected by jiggers is abject poverty. They cannot afford water for cleaning as it is not a priority. This contributes greatly to the spread of the jigger menace. Many people cannot afford shoes and the infected cannot fit into conventional shoes. The infected use needles to dig out the jiggers but this option is painful and contributes to the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS through the sharing of needles. Shoes are thus necessary in stopping the infection as the jiggers are poor at jumping.

As a solution I propose 3D printed, affordable, customized, and medicated shoes.

This will involve setting up mobile shoe centers, tapping into the networks of Ahadi Kenya Trust (the only organization in Kenya tackling this issue), where people can come in and have their feet scanned and have part of the shoe printed for them. [For more about my research and the shoe project kindly check out this article. The project is still on-going and I am happy to answer any questions]. The magic of making comes in in these shoe centers. This is not just about giving people shoes, but I also see them as spaces where the youth can be taught about basic shoe-making skills. The printed parts of the shoe will be used as a frame around which a classical shoe can be constructed using locally available materials. This is because using 3D printing for the production of these shoes will be expensive as well as very time-consuming. In time, I’m sure these hurdles can be overcome, and I have a few ideas about working around this. Consequently, there will be teaching about 3D printing technology. This encompasses teaching the youth about some basic CAD design principles as well basic computing and designing. But I already have their attention, so why stop there?

From my research, it is evident that the solution to jiggers cannot be just shoes. The crux of the problem is poverty and so something needs to be done to address this directly. I hope to do this through the maker education. With continued support and uptake, I see the shoe centers serving as small-scale/mini Fablabs where the youth are taught skills and introduced to making. With these skills, the youth will certainly have a better chance at life as they not only feel like they are part of the solution, but they are also empowered to do more…much,  much more. The people who are affected by jiggers are typically very poor and so this community space will serve as a second chance at life for them.

I am currently at the proof of concept stage of the project where I will be catering primarily to children as they are the most affected. The teaching will at first be limited to basic computing and design, all the while printing to fight the jiggers. Ideally, the space will be a community-led initiative to ensure the sustainability of the project. Again, if the community feels like they own the solution then they will certainly protect it and ensure its success.

This is an on-going project and although I have come very far, there is still a lot to be done. I will speak more about the project on my next post so be sure to check it out.



Erin Riley's picture

Roy- I really enjoy reading your posts.  It is great to learn about your work and how your personal maker spirit and advocacy is improving people's lives.  Very inspiring! 

Roy Ombatti's picture

Thank you Erin!