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Remarkable acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands on which we are gathered today, and we pay respects to the elders past, present and emerging for they hold the traditions, the culture and hopes for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the nation. And we would also like to acknowledge the advocates who played a role in advancing the rights of people with disabilities, leading to addressing the inequalities faced by people with disabilities.
Did you know that more than 1 billion people globally are living with some form of disability, and that 80% of this population live in low and middle income countries, and that only one in 10 of those have access to the assistive technology they need. In the following episode, we speak with Bernard Chiira, founder of Africa’s first Assistive Technology Accelerator based in Nairobi, Kenya, to talk about his life growing up with scoliosis and his mission to raise the business profile of investing in assistive tech startups in Africa. We discussed the accessibility, equity and affordability of assistive technology in Africa, and how regulation must meet the needs of innovation in order to get the technology into the hands of those who need it most. Hello, Bernard, it’s so lovely to have you here on the Remarkable Insights podcast. Before we jump in, we’d like to ask our guests, if you wouldn’t mind, could you do a visual description of who you are as a person and the setting that you’re in?
Bernard Chiira 00:58
Yeah, I will try. So here it goes. So I, African man, black hair, brown skin, and wearing a pink shirt. And I’m joining you all the way from Nairobi.
Viv Mullan 01:13
Brilliant. Thank you so much Bernard, I would love to just start off with if you could just give a bit of an introduction to who you are, and how you know where you grew up in the world and how that led you to the current position you are in now with your career
Bernard Chiira 01:28
So I was born and raised in Kenya. And I remember the story goes because I was too small a country. Remember that when I was two weeks old, I was shipped back to the hospital. And that’s because I couldn’t stop crying. And my parents were trying to figure out why. So at the age of two weeks, I was diagnosed with brittle bone disease. And my childhood was one in and out of hospital. So at some point, when we were like three, four years old, we moved to the city mainly to try and access better health care. So my entire family moved, I come from a relatively big family seven in total. And I do have other siblings in my family who also had a physical disability. So I would say that disability and inclusion and diversity has been a feature in my family, because some of us had a disability and some didn’t. And we basically learned how to thrive together and support each other. So my mama was a farmer. And my dad used to work in the bank. And I think it was alive when having a disability and living in the village was not easy, especially for my mom, because she had kids, multiple kids with disabilities. So from a societal perspective, of course, the stigma was quite a thing. You know, in the African setting, culturally, things like disability are not, you know, well received. So people kind of resolve to Yeah, why does she have kids with disabilities? What did she do? But I think the most powerful thing I would say is basically the power of love and family because most families are split by disability in Africa. Like, I think my parents are my biggest heroes, because they’re my mentors. They’re my support system. And that was very important at that age, giving a child the confidence that look, you can make it and and giving you an equal opportunity like other kids. I think that’s all that’s needed. You know, back in 2019, I joined the Global Disability Innovation hub to launch innovate now in Kenya, which is Africa, squats, assistive tech accelerator, and we’ve been running it now for three and a half years. And kind of bringing the mindset of technology and innovation in the disability world, which was something quite new on this side of the world.
Viv Mullan 04:12
Yeah, your parents sound like pretty incredible people. That kind of speaks to where I’d love to take this conversation to next, which is when we look at the climate of assistive technology and these conversations around accessibility and affordability. We can kind of see, 80% of the world’s population of people living with disability come from low to middle income countries, I believe is sort of some of the latest statistics as someone who grew up in a rural part of of Africa and then had to move to the city just to access more of the support. How does that sort of statistic feel, as someone who’s been through your journey and as someone that is pioneering assistive technology in Africa
Bernard Chiira 04:59
Unlike In the West, where some of the leading factors are driving factors for disabilities and aging population, here you have, most of the people affected by disabilities are young people whose futures need to be secured, literally. So, for me, that feels like, that’s why we can’t, you know, be business as usual, in matters of disability, and we have to address matters disability in a very sustainable way. And I believe in this nexus of capital meeting, philanthropy and the responsibility of government, everyone working in unison, to play their role so that we can give access to pass and see disabilities across many things. You know, assistive technology, of course, is one of the major gaps because only one in 10 have access. And for me, coming from a background of technology, and entrepreneurship, I have had the privilege of leading accelerators and incubators that produce success, and great companies in other sectors like energy education. And I think when you know, at the nexus of technology, and entrepreneurship, you can start doing amazing things in addressing the gaps we have in assistive tech. And for me, this was really exciting to live my career in university where I was leading an incubator to try this, and three and a half years later, and not only I will try this, we’ve actually been able to validate that we actually need to do more to secure the assistive technology products and services in Africa by supporting small businesses, or startups that literally scale their services across the continent. And we are beginning to see that now. So for me, it’s very exciting to be contributing in a very meaningful way, in an area that is so untapped and to unlock new possibilities. Yeah, for the people in Africa and for the world.
Viv Mullan 07:17
Can you talk about some of the assistive technology that you’ve been able to support and how you discovered this technology that is emerging out of Africa?
Bernard Chiira 07:25
Sure. So I’ll start with frugal innovation. So imagine this, one of the biggest challenges we have in most emerging markets, and in most developing countries, is this idea of accessible mobility or transportation, public transport. So most of you know, our countries in Africa did not build accessible cities. And in that case, it means that most of our transport is not accessible. So it’s very difficult for wheelchair users to move around, even in short distances. So back in 2019, when we took in our first cohort, I remember we took in an entrepreneur, his name is Lincoln, and Lincoln, I discovered Lincoln in the most exciting way through a YouTube video. And it was a video that was shot by the BBC. And I saw this young man give a story about coming to Nairobi to look for job opportunities. And he was a self taught engineer, and he learnt a lot of his engineering on YouTube auction. So Lincoln comes to Nairobi, and he had this experience where he sees disabled people not being able to access transport, it’s raining, this person is being rained on. And he said to himself, you know, I’ve been building drones and other electric vehicles, why not build an accessible tricycle that had long power range that will take someone from, you know, for short distances where they don’t need to build a vehicle. So he actually went and built what he now calls the little cell tricycle. So it’s a fully motorised Price Cycle built out of initially out of 80 to 90% recycled materials. And the most amazing thing is how he went about to build the battery, which is the, you know, the most important thing in a motorised vehicle and he went around and started collecting old laptop batteries, you know, from Jenkins from offices, and he would go and take them apart and rebuild them, calibrate them and build an entirely new battery. That power was an electric tricycle, and he would go and get, you know, an office chair you go and get, he literally built his fast tricycle like this And when he did a demo of it, I mean, it was truly amazing because you see entrepreneurs, most of the time they face a double challenge, you don’t have the capital to start what you want. And at the same time for you to show potential and be investable, you need to show what’s built in what you have solved. And this is a type of innovation that in Africa is very common, where we work with what we have, and we solve problems. And today lean sell, lean sell technology is one of the leading motorised tricycle, accessible tricycle products, and they have literally almost sold hundreds of this price cycles. And the most amazing thing is they cut down the costs by almost 50%. And they want to do it even more, if they reach even able to manufacture at scale. Wow. So when we found that this was very impressive for us, we took him in, and we are seeing this type of innovation having immediate impact. You see, assistive technology is one of those things, where you don’t really have to wait for 10 years to see the impact. The new part is immediate, because now you have a lady, one of his first customers is a lady that sells vegetables in the streets, and she’s able to move in very difficult terrains. And one of her stories is now beyond going to business he’s able to go to church and interact more in our community.
Viv Mullan 11:35
And with the startups that you’re supporting with Innovate Now, are you seeing these startups largely driven by people with disability? Or is it allies and people that work in this space?
Bernard Chiira 11:47
That’s a brilliant question. And I think most of these startups that have made significant steps for the progress in our accelerators have actually been led by disabled entrepreneurs, or teams that are very diverse in terms of their employees, they have, you know, disabled entrepreneurs, or even at the leadership and strategic level at the board level, they have disabled advisors. And I think we can’t, you know, downplay the significance of this, because it goes back to the, you know, the principle about inclusion, and you cannot include, without involving persons with disabilities, I think they say nothing about us without us. But for me, it’s not to say that if you don’t have a disability, you cannot solve for disability. And not at all, I think it’s how deep is your understanding of the root cause of the problems and the what’s your, what’s your driving force, and I think having people with disabilities are the centre of this is one of the most powerful driving forces. And he’s also one thing I’ve come to learn is about what you call the allies or you know, the peripheral of disability, when you look at the Global Disability opportunity, or the last opportunity to date, nearly $2 trillion. And this is by those with disabilities and their families or other allies. And I think we have to look at this, as you know, an opportunity that needs to be unlocked, and a way to elevate disability not just as a good inclusion or diversity theme, but as a real area of opportunity as a real life changing opportunity and a driver for prosperity, even in business. And I think companies that have realised this are making significant efforts and investments in driving inclusion of persons with disabilities in business. And I think business is one of the biggest forces for good, that can make a significant difference. And I think we need more of them to kind of say, Okay, how do we support other market driven solutions coming out of accelerators, I think we need more corporate involvement in supporting disability innovation.
Viv Mullan 14:27
And it’s so brilliant to see around the world. There’s been these people driving this change when it comes to assistive technology, with remarkable with innovate now, you know, and with the initiatives that Gina has just helped launch with moonshot and the inclusive innovation network, seeing all of these communities come together, and seeing that sort of collaboration. Just unifying and igniting this real movement is so exciting, because there’s no real competitors. It’s the same goal which is just a more inclusive and accessible world. So thank you for the work you’re doing. And we like to wrap these conversations up by providing our guests with a remarkable insight. So something that you’d like to share about your hopes for the future or some advice that they can take away from this conversation
Bernard Chiira 15:15
Yeah, thanks, we I think we are at a very interesting time in history, where the power of technology, the power of connectedness, the farmer, the internet, is really connecting all the right people across the world. And it’s no longer lonely to be working in this sector. And we are beginning to see possibilities. And to believe that, you know, we can drive this change in a more sustainable way. So my, my dreams for the future, my hope for the future is that when we invest in disability inclusion when we invest in startups, in disabled leaders in disabled entrepreneurs, we are not just investing. For today, we are investing for the future, we are going to create a more sustainable world, we’re going to create a more inclusive world. And I think we are taking the right steps. But we have to make those decisions today so that the future can be better. So invest in disabled leaders, invest in disabled entrepreneurs, and will create the world that you want to see in future.
Viv Mullan 16:24
Thank you so much, Bernard. It’s been such a pleasure to have you here for this Remarkable Insights conversation.
Bernard Chiira 16:30
Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure.
Viv Mullan 16:33
The full interview with our guests can be found in the link below where you press play on this podcast, our show notes, make sure you subscribe or hit follow to not miss another Remarkable Insights episode.
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Connect with Bernard Chiira on LinkedIn and learn more about Innovate Now.