Happy feet thanks to an idea and a 3D printer

April 16, 2014

Kenyan student Roy Ombatti has devised a project that is equally innovative, green and socially-minded. Using a 3D printer, he fashions shoes out of recycled materials for people whose feet are deformed because of a sand flea (jigger) infection. He baptised the project ‘Happy Feet’.

Hivos spoke to Ombatti about the power of social innovation in late March when he and five other creative thinkers and doers from our international network were invited to the Netherlands to present their work at the Age of Wonder festival held by Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven.

Ombatti developed his idea specially for the 3D4D Challenge, a contest that challenges people to use 3D printing technology to encourage social innovation in low and middle-income countries. He focussed on problems in his native Kenya caused by a small but destructive creature.

“The sand flea (jigger) is a tiny insect that feeds on mammals, including humans. It burrows into the skin and destroys the surrounding tissue. People develop deformed feet, which leads to amputations or even death,” Ombatti says.

Many of those affected by the sand flea infection cannot wear normal shoes because of their deformities. They have great difficulty walking and often can no longer go to work or school. “So I asked myself ‘why not have shoes made ??for them that are fully adapted to the shape of their feet?’”.

Shoes from plastic bottles

The Happy Feet project has been going for over a year now, and Ombatti has run up against the limitations of his 3D printer. “I need one that can work with any material because I have to experiment. So the prototype shoes I’ve made are still rather stiff.” However, he hopes that in the near future this will change. “Right now I’m working on getting a new printer and I’ve also got my eye on a possible new material, HDPE (high density polyethylene).”

“Because most victims of sand flea infections are poor, I wanted to use a material that’s widely available in Kenya. Moreover, I prefer recycled materials, and HDPE is in plastic bottles just lying around on the street, like for vegetable oil and body lotion,” he says. The cooperation between Hivos and Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven could bring Ombatti closer to the new technical solutions he needs.

3D printing technology was introduced in Kenya three years ago, and according to Ombatti, it offers opportunities to tackle many other problems in his country. “The possibilities of this technology are endless; the main problem is, however, the cost. Everyone is excited about the 3D printer – lots of people have visited our lab to admire it – but not everyone can afford one.”

Age of Wonder

Hivos invited artists, creative thinkers and doers from its networks in Indonesia, Latin America and East Africa to interact with BaltanLab artists and scientists at the Age of Wonder Festival in Eindhoven from 28 to 30 March. Their encounters and pairing with artists, researchers and scientists from the Baltan Laboratories community will form the basis for projects and experiments later this year during a six-week artist-in-residence programme in September. The aim is to boost creative ideas and stimulate social innovation. The results will be presented during the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven late October 2014.

Before Ombatti came to the Netherlands, he never saw himself as an artist. “I was invited because of my work as a engineer. I was expecting that I’d be the odd one out in this group of creative types that Hivos had invited. But fortunately I wasn’t the only participant with a scientific background! Moreover, I realise now since the start of the project that the things I do can be seen as art.”

Ombatti expects it will be precisely this mix of disciplines that will spark creativity during the artist-in-residence programme next September. “I’m going into this challenge with an open mind. At home I’m mainly surrounded by other engineers, but the contacts I made during the Age of Wonder Festival are making me look at the world with different eyes and come up with new ideas.”

Ombatti feels it is important that festivals like Age of Wonder draw attention to the power of social innovation. “It’s great to have the latest things technology can offer, like iPhones and tablets, but if your neighbor is still struggling with problems that can be solved by the most simple technology, then we have failed as a human race. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is huge. We’ve got to continue trying to give others a better life – that’s what I want to use my knowledge as an engineer for.”