How South Africa Makes is using 3D printing to shape the fight against COVID-19

The UK-South Africa Tech Hub, in collaboration with the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative has been working closely with SME/Entrepreneurial businesses on the Developer Placement Programme, an initiative to provide work-readiness opportunities to youth with digital skills.


To increase the number of digitally up-skilled youth entering entrepreneurial activity streams, the programme has seen entrepreneurial businesses hosting a developer intern at their company for 6 months.


One of the participating entrepreneurial businesses is South Africa Makes, a 3D printing and digital manufacturing company specialising in the medical, dental, and research industries in Africa.


The startup was founded after Dr Riyad Domingo met Dr Cherise Dunn, at the Medical Alumni Club at the Faculty of Health Sciences at UCT.


“We shared a common interest in driving the adoption of this technology to solve challenges in medicine and research in developing countries,” explains Dr Domingo.


The two co-founders started researching the concept of 3D printing for Development (#3D4D) in 2016 and founded the start-up in 2018.


“Our big vision is to ensure that people across Africa have access to services that would provide affordable healthcare solutions as quickly as possible,” says Dr Domingo.


“We want to see clinics, hospitals, and other research facilities in Africa be independent of global supply chains for life-saving equipment by using this technology.


Over the last few years, the pair has pioneered the adoption of this technology in sectors across Africa. One of their long-term goals has also been to improve the employment profile of women and the previously disadvantaged within the industry – Africa contributes to less than 1% of the job market skilled in 3D printing internationally.


“South Africa also imports approximately 90% of medical devices which contributes to their high cost, making these items expensive and out of reach for many. We are working hard to change this narrative.”


The company has enjoyed some major highlights throughout the years.


“Some of our highlights include the recognition of my amazing co-founder as one of the brave women leading the way in South Africa with numerous awards including the Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans for 2019 for the Business and Entrepreneurship category, and recognition from the COCREATESA (an initiative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in South Africa) as one of the InspiringFifty – one of the most inspirational women in STEM in South Africa.


Dr Domingo adds that one of the startup’s biggest success stories came quite recently with TEDx recognising South Africa Makes as one of the pioneers in the world driving the concept and applications of 3D printing for development.


“It has been really amazing to see the feedback to the work that we have done not only from those in Africa but around the world.”


However, the journey has also been with its fair share of challenges.


“Most start-ups face challenges, but we have chosen to see these as opportunities to drive our vision for the greater adoption of digital manufacturing in industries on the continent. ”


He explains that at first, one of the biggest challenges they faced was the general public’s lack of awareness and understanding of the benefits and potential use of 3D printing.


“Outside of the engineering industry, many had never heard of 3D printing or knew of any of its applications. We have had to empower people with the knowledge of 3D printing and demonstrate the profound impact it has had in other parts of the world.”


And like many startups around the world, South Africa Makes has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.


“It has been challenging to keep a young team motivated and encourage resilience during uncertain times, but the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the way that we had initially started to communicate and complete objectives. Prior to lockdown, we had promoted the adoption of digital tools in the workplace, such as Trello, Teams, and Google Meet, to support remote working.”


The advent of the pandemic has also created an opportunity for South Africa Makes to use their technology to help in the fight against COVID-19.


The startup is using 3D printing to manufacture certified nasopharyngeal swabs – critical components for COVID-19 testing. As reported, widespread testing for the coronavirus is currently hampered by a shortage of testing supplies.


How South Africa Makes is using 3D printing to shape the fight against COVID-19 1
“What’s fantastic about 3D printing is that as conditions change, so can we by updating the design components to support new diagnostic procedures or methodologies available in our region.


“We’ve been very fortunate in that in South Africa, we have not yet reached the peak for new infections as other countries have. This allows us to plan ahead and predict what resources will be required to combat the spread of the pandemic in the future.


“We had some of the technology on hand for rapid prototyping and small-batch manufacturing, however, we are now ramping up production to be able to further support the testing of millions in South Africa and abroad.”