Simple Innovation to Save Lives from Drowning
26 July 2017

Collette, Kalenga and Rose receive the winners’ certificate from Mr Chirwa of Press Trust, the main sponsors of the NSSF (Josephine Ngulube, Teacher at Dzaleka Secondary School)

While many are in quest for sophistication to find solutions to some of our day-to-day problems, often times the simplest ideas are the most effective. This can also be said of the award-winning innovation by a team of students and teachers of Dzaleka Secondary School in Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Dowa district, Central Malawi. The team’s invention will be saving a lot of lives from drowning on the country’s water bodies or during flood waters. Their idea of making a lifejacket out of polythene sheets and plastic bottles won them the prestigious Scientific and Technological Innovation Award at the recent National Schools Science Fair (NSSF), besides being the best overall winner at the annual showcase. The fair took place from 2nd to 4th July, 2017.

“We had planned to showcase this as a side project which is never scored at the fair,” Shadreck Lakudzala, the patron and Physics teacher at Dzaleka Secondary School, said of the award-winning project. “But there was a change of heart when a representative of Kamuzu Academy, hosts of the NSSF, who came to our school to invite us to the fair, was convinced that our side idea was actually the better idea. Then we put aside our initial project of making a model of the human respiratory system using locally available materials to pursue this idea that has a real practical use in people’s day-to-day lives.”

The Dzaleka Secondary School, run by Jesuit Refugee Service, has been participating in the NSSF for the past 4 years, finishing fifth in 2016. Prior to this, their best ever outing was in 2013 when they finished third overall, but their project, a wooden seed dispenser/sowing machine, was the highlight of that year’s fair and was the best in the category of Scientific and Technological Innovation. Representing the school this year was an all-girl team of Rose Kabonga (aged 17, Form 3), Collette Honore (aged 15, Form 2) and Kalenga Lubembele (aged, Form 2) and their teachers Shadreck Lakudzala and Josephine Ngulube. The students are all refugees from the DR Congo. For their achievements this year, the school received certificates of achievements and cash prizes totalling MK340,000 (around USD466), half of which to be shared among the participants, and the rest to be invested in school improvement.

So, of all the things, what inspired the team to design and make a lifejacket using plastic sheets and plastic bottles? “There are a lot of accidents on the waters of Malawi,” said Shadreck. “People are drowning, boats are capsizing. Some of the deaths can be preventable, only if people are equipped to swim or float to safety.” Unfortunately most boats, canoes and other vessels do not have safety equipment on board. Lifejackets are expensive and scarce in Malawi and an ordinary person cannot afford them. “We moved around all major shops in Lilongwe, and only one shop had lifejackets in stock,” Shadreck further stated. “A basic lifejacket cost MK12,000 (USD17). This may not sound much, but levels of income a low for most Malawians.” Their lifejacket used 26 half litre plastic bottles (making a total of 13l of air volume), 3m2 of polythene, and several metres of twine. It took up to four hours to make, but it can be done in less time. This lifejacket is big enough for persons of at least 61kg body mass. “The materials used in the making of the lifejacket are easy to get,” Collette added. “Plastic sheets are easy to get, and people can reuse empty water or soft drink plastic bottles. This is also good for the environment.” Reusing plastic bottles reduces levels of land pollution and keeps the surrounding cleaner. The lifejacket project actually qualified for another category: Environment and Climate Change, but the rules of the fair forbid participation a single project in more than one category.

A model of the lifejacket made from polythene sheets and plastic bottles

Picking up shape (Percy Chikwela, JRS Dzaleka Education Project Director)

The timing of the lifejacket could not have been more appropriate; the nation is just recovering from one of its worst water accidents when, on the dawn of 17th April, a boat carrying over 80 passengers and  tonnes of cargo (mostly farm produce) capsized, killing 5 people with 20 still missing. In 2012, 47 Somalis and Ethiopians, fleeing conflict and famine in their home countries, perished on the lake when a boat they were sailing in capsized. These are a few of many fatal accidents on the country’s water bodies. Having such low cost and easy-to-assemble technologies can come in handy to avoid such calamities on the waters. “The project idea itself came from the scientific principle of ‘density,’” Rose chipped in. “It was from a brainstorming session in class around principles of density that we arrived at the project idea. We explored how locally some scientific principles are used in communities in their day-to-day lives. People living around water bodies have applied this knowledge by tying around each upper arm a plastic bottle which helps them float when swimming in deeper waters. However, having a full-body lifejacket is handy since we use many bottles which increases chances of survival, even if one or two bottles get punctured or damaged.” Ms Ngulube added that initial prototype used 10 one litre bottles, but this turned out to be cumbersome, and in case of a puncture, you lose more air at once as compared to when you use many smaller volume bottles.

The project was a very good example of team work. While the whole project idea was from a classroom brainstorming session, the three students and their teachers worked together through two prototypes and trials at the swimming pool of Bishop Mackenzie International School in Lilongwe. The participating students were selected for their enthusiasm and eloquence, since the presentations at the fair are all done by students. Ms Ngulube, while not a science teacher herself, always loves science and reads a lot of scientific journals and books. She offered a lot of insights into principles of swimming, being a swimmer herself, and she highly influenced the ergonomics of the design. “We wanted a balance between utility and usability; something that’s comfortable to wear and swim or float in, while ensuring maximum safety,” Ms Ngulube said. “The final design makes it easy to turn while in the water.”
Rose wearing the lifejacket model made out of polythene sheets and plastic bottles

Rose, clad in the completed lifejacket (Shadreck Lakudzala, teacher at Dzaleka Secondary School)

While the team were proud of their project, there was always a lingering doubt in their minds about chances of success; they felt that, maybe, their project was too simplistic. “I’ve participated in the four or five previous science fairs as a patron,” recollected Lakudzala, “and the displays there are always breath-taking. There’s a lot of thought, effort and sophistication put into them. We just wanted to go there and show everyone that it’s possible to save lives and take care of our environment in an easy and cost-effective way.” Confidence slowly creeped in once the displays commenced. The lifejacket was the main attraction at the fair for both students from other schools and dignitaries. When the winners were announced it was no longer a surprise.

“I’ve never felt such joy as I felt on that day,” Kalenga recalls. “There’s no way to describe how I felt. I couldn’t believe my ears. It was like a dream which was becoming reality, and I was really happy. For me, the whole thing was like an adventure. It was great to interact with other students from different schools in Malawi, it was totally inspiring.” Rose also couldn’t find words to describe how he felt on that day. “It was such a great feeling,” she recalled. “Participating itself was a great experience because I like sciences. And finally being declared winners, I think I was the first one to jump.” It was similar for Collette, who was grateful to have participated in this year science fair and was overwhelmed by joy and emotions after being declared winners. The girls claim that their achievement this year has motivated them to like sciences further and to continue innovating to solve some of the problems facing humanity today. Both Rose and Collette would like to study medicine and become doctors when they finish school, a career which requires one to be really good in sciences. Collette also harbours an ambition of becoming a lawyer. Kalenga dreams of an accounting career, and maybe ultimately, a company manager.

So, after the victory, what is next? “We’d love to see our project become mainstream,” said Collette. “It’d be nice if we had an opportunity to train more people, especially on the shores of Lake Malawi, how to make their own lifejackets. This would promote safety on the waters of Malawi, while at the same time protecting the environment.” The team is looking forward to partner with interested organisations or governmental agencies to promote their project so that ordinary Malawians can interact with their water resources safely and contribute to a cleaner environment.

By Percy Chikwela, JRS Dzaleka Education Project Director

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