With bike chains and car parts Afghan girls build ventilators © Digital Citizen Fund
In the eastern Afghan city of Herat, 18-year-old high school student Somaya Faruqi adjusts a suction cap as she puts the finishing touches on the lightweight ventilator created by her and six other young women.
With pliers in hand, the group of five fashion ventilators from car parts, bike chains, and machine sensors, an imperfect solution to the country’s looming coronavirus crisis.
The all-female Afghan Robotics Team, which has won international awards for its robots, started work in March on an open-source, low-cost ventilator as the coronavirus pandemic hit the war-torn nation.
It took the team almost four months to finalize the ventilator, partly based on a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) design. They received guidance from experts at Harvard University.
The device is easy to carry, can run on battery power for 10 hours, and costs roughly $700 to produce, compared with the $20,000 price of a traditional ventilator.
“We had to be creative when it came to sourcing material,” said Somaya Faruqi, the team’s 17-year-old captain.
“Our machines are built out of a combination of a Toyota Corolla motor, chains from motorcycles, and separate pressure, heat and humidity sensors,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
While the devices cannot replace medical ventilators, they should bring temporary relief to coronavirus patients.
“We are delighted that we were able to take our first step in the field of medicine and to be able to serve the people in this area as well. All members of our team feel happy because, after months of hard work, we were able to achieve this result,” Faruqi told Reuters.
“It’s not a perfect device, but it can do two things: control the volume of oxygen entering the body, and count and control the number of breaths per minute,” said Faruqi.
For two months, Faruqi’s team – wearing masks and gloves – has worked five long days a week to complete their prototype.
“We were quite scared by the prospects of the pandemic, so we decided to try to do our part,” said Faruqi.
Before the outbreak, the girls built robots, studied programming, and prepared for their final year of school under an initiative set up in 2015 to teach girls tech skills and instill confidence through science.
The team – who wear long black dresses and headscarves along with their anti-virus masks and gloves – has been celebrated across Afghanistan and won prizes in the West.
According to the United Nations, Afghanistan’s literacy rate for women remains low at about 30 percent, with many girls in rural, conservative communities unable to attend school.
However, in Herat, the city’s university now has its largest body of women pursuing computer science, topping 500.
“It’s slowly changing,” said Faruqi, but only for some.
She said that families like hers are more liberal; otherwise, it would have been impossible to leave the house and work on the breathing machines.
The girls hope to finish their device by mid-month and sell them for about $600 – 50 times cheaper than medical ventilators – as a stopgap for Herat’s main COVID-19 hospital, a government facility.
Although the ventilator must still undergo final testing from health authorities before it can be used, it is a welcome invention.
Health Ministry spokesman Akmal Samsor said once the ventilators were approved, they would be rolled out in Afghan hospitals and the design shared with the World Health Organization.
“In a country where medical supply is largely lacking, we are prepared to look into such alternative options,” Qadir Qadir, general director of the Ministry of Public Health, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
He said Afghanistan had about 480 ventilators available, but about 40 belonged to the military and dozens to non-profits.
“Whether the girls’ product can be used is yet to be determined. It would need to be tested and can’t immediately be used in patient care,” said Qadir.
Faruqi is undaunted, her team working all out to finish their low-cost, low-tech prototype.
“We’ve seen a lot of encouragement from people, but our biggest drive is the current situation. Afghanistan is in crisis, and we want to do what we can to help,” she said.