In 2016, the Tanzanian government institute the NHIF Insurance plan, waiving all maternal health expenses for expecting mothers. However, many women could not afford or travel to the hospital safely. That’s when Deb McCracken, director of The Olive Branch for Children, reached out to the MIT D-Lab. She witnessed the struggle that the people in the most rural reaches of Tanzania faced in reaching the hospital and wanted to find a solution. Through the MIT D-Lab Design course, she consulted a team of engineering students, from which the Okoa Project was born.
Since our first trip, we have visited Tanzania three times, conducted over two hundred and fifty interviews with community members, and transformed the project into a non-profit. The Okoa Project now works in Tanzania out of the Kubuni Centre for Innovation. We’ve come a long way since our inception, but we’re only getting started. We hope you’ll follow us as we continue to grow.
Our model follows the model we grew up on -- a hybrid of the approaches practiced at MIT D-Lab and the Kubuni Centre Collaborative. We aim to create a practical solution to tackle rural medical transportation using an inclusive design process. We approach every problem with an open mind, bringing together perspectives from communities, institutions, stories and international research to shape our solutions. It is important to us to partner with people from all backgrounds to create sustainable solutions.
Okoa began as a collaboration, and we continue that tradition as we move forward. We work with universities and communities to create experiential learning and collaborative design opportunities for college students and under-served youth. We hope to expose students to technical, cross-cultural work and teams but most importantly, empower them to develop further solutions to impact and serve their communities.
From the beginning, it was imperative to get input from the communities we hoped to serve. After building and testing our first prototype in Tanzania, we spent hours interviewing over 250 stakeholders including villagers, village leaders, motorcycle drivers, and local clinicians to gain feedback on the design in order to make the patient experience as pleasant as possible.
Okoa works out of the Kubuni Centre, a platform to support Tanzanian innovators by providing capacity building workshops and space for wood and metal working. Kubuni works with local youth who often had to drop out of school and helps to give work opportunities. Our three newest team members are Kubuni apprentices now helping to build ambulances for our upcoming pilot test.
The D-Lab course Design for Scale teaches MIT students design and rapid prototyping techniques to turn a prototype into a mass manufactured product. This fall, a team of five students are working with the Okoa engineering team to redesign the ambulance frame to ease manufacturing and assembly processes. A few students will travel to Mbeya in January to get experience working along our Tanzanian team and interacting with surrounding communities.
In Spring 2018, eight students from the Mbeya University of Science and Technology worked with the Okoa engineering team to improve various aspects of the design. The 8-week internship program facilitated by the Kubuni Centre, giving Tanzanian engineering students an opportunity to work on a real engineering project to impact their communities.