Design for Uganda – Reflections on a WhatsApp Approach

So, if you build it there, how will it help healthcare in Uganda?”

This is the question that my Makerere team leader asked me when I told him of my plans to build and test a validation prototype of our device on Duke’s campus.

I didn’t know how to respond. As part of this partnership, we Duke students worked jointly with the Makerere engineering students. This task is easier said than done. Formulating a design requires constant communication: engineers need to talk to end users, brainstorm ideas, and continually re-evaluate decisions. Grainy Skype calls, seven-hour time differences, and culturally contrasting work styles make the design flowchart look decidedly less linear.

Furthermore, working within low-income countries is complicated. Throughout the process, I found it important to be cognizant of my own privilege – I can easily get my hands on materials, tools, and expert advice on campus. It would have been easy (and was often tempting) to take the reigns of the project myself for the sake of satiating my hunger for constant progress. Because of this, I worried about my trajectory in this initiative. I could design a low cost device at Duke, show it to my team, and walk away – my resume padded with experience, my blog post emblazoned on the Internet as a testament to my growth experience. And my design would be “successful” (at least, on paper).

Despite the extreme difficulty of designing across continents, I’m challenging myself to resist putting this project into the past tense. It requires constant focus and motivation to maintain communication with my team, make myself available for their consultation, and ask for progress updates. But it’s worth it. We must remember that the developing world is not a sandbox where we can build up our egos, nor is it a Petri dish for culturing a pat-yourself-on-the-back feeling. This initiative is about our growth, yes, but not in the traditional stereotype of humanitarian aid. I can assure you that there’s nothing glamorous about making morning WhatsApp calls to talk about pressure cookers. Engineering is about solving real problems that affect real people. Perhaps my team’s device will revolutionize healthcare across Uganda, or perhaps it will be used in a single clinic. Whichever case, I’m committing myself to working alongside my team, teaching them, and learning from them while I can.

Picture & post by Collyn Heier


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