Big Ideas Team Heads to USAID’s TechCon

Nov 8, 2016

By Sarah Bernardo

Grace Nakibaala, Isah Ssevume, and Molly Mbaziira Nannyonjo from Makerere University formed the PedalTap team to prevent the spread of infection at communal handwashing facilities in Uganda. The PedalTap is a free-standing, universally-fitting connection that can be attached to any water tap. Rather than turning the tap on and off using their hands, users can control water flow by stepping on a foot pedal that is made from a bicycle brake handle and a spring-loaded water cut-off mechanism.

graceTransforming the PedalTap from an idea into a usable product was a challenging process for the team. Grace Nakibaala, team lead for PedalTap explains, “We were stretched in ways we never imagined, way beyond our comfort zones.” She continues, “One of the challenges we faced quite early on, as a multidisciplinary team of students, was in making time for our project. Our schedules never seemed to align, but we quickly learned that if this was important to us, which it was, we had to make time for it.”

Besides finding the time to work collaboratively on the process, the PedalTap team was also challenged in the piloting stage. Nakibaala elaborates, “We did not have the resources to pilot the product in the community and turn our idea into a viable product on the market. We knew it was important to iteratively engage the end-user in the design, development, and testing stages before taking our product to the market but did not have the means to do so.”

PedalTap submitted their product to the Big Ideas Contest in November 2015 , and ultimately won 3rd place in the highly competitive Global Health category which received 66 submissions that year. According to Nakibaala, “The $5000 prize that we secured from the Big Ideas competition was the first award we ever got. It went a long way in showing us that someone believed in PedalTap and in facilitating the piloting phase of implementing our project. We also received mentorship from engineer Cosmos Mwikiriza, who we were matched with through the Big Ideas competition and who has continued to guide us individually in our different career paths and as a group in turning our idea into a viable business.”

Since winning the Big Ideas prize, PedalTap has piloted their product at Mulago Hospital, Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), Makerere University, and the Infectious Disease Institute (IDI). PedalTap focuses on three types of usage for their product: humanitarian emergencies, general health care, and the private sector. Based on the needs of each case, the team has developed three different products. Through the initial pilot, PedalTap received valuable feedback from users which allowed them to make improvements to their design. PedalTap is now producing ten new taps which they will install at the test sites. The taps are free and will be piloted for an additional month with continuous monitoring and feedback from users.

PedalTap maintains a blog online, and their work in Uganda has garnered media attention. The PedalTap was spotlighted in local newspapers and on several television programs. Most prominently, the project was featured in a segment on BBC World News. “The media coverage has helped increase PedalTap’s visibility and has drawn in a large clientele that is anxiously waiting for PedalTap to hit the market. But more importantly, the media coverage has helped share our vision and our story, and I believe this is what people have fallen in love with- the potential impact of PedalTap in communities,” says Nakibaala.

Looking to the future, PedalTap is focusing on branding, marketing, and scaling up their product. Nakibaala says that their next goal is threefold: “One, to further refine our product using the feedback from our initial pilot. Two, to increase our reach and impact through partnering with organisations like the Ministry of Health in Uganda that align with our vision as PedalTap. Three, to increase our capacity as a team. We have registered PedalTap as a business and currently outsource some of the work in developing the PedalTap, but we want to be able to produce the entire product in a workshop we own. We believe this will lower production costs and will therefore contribute towards a more affordable product.”

PedalTap also hopes to develop more partnerships to help their project grow. The team’s current partnerships with Big Ideas and USAID have provided funding as well as support through mentorship and training. Big Ideas and USAID have also connected PedalTap to the ResilentAfrica Network which has given the team a physical space to work and access to a reliable internet connection–two resources that are essential to entrepreneurs but are often difficult to acquire in African countries such as Uganda. Nakibaala explains that PedalTap is now looking to partner with other organizations that share their vision of lowering the spread of infection through promoting proper hand hygiene while also conserving water. Ultimately, the team hopes to build partnerships that will enable them to secure their own workshop and increase their capacity for mass production of the PedalTap.

In addition to seeking new partnerships, PedalTap continues to enter their product in various competitions. Nakibaala says, “[The] PedalTap team is also very excited and preparing to take part in the TechCon Innovation Marketplace. We are determined to be the winners of this year’s marketplace.” TechCon is an annual convention hosted by the Higher Education Solutions Network and USAID. The convention brings together a wide range of people from students and development experts to entrepreneurs and researchers. One feature of TechCon is the Innovation Marketplace in which young innovators and students compete as individuals or teams in one of two categories: “products & services” or “research.” The final round of winners from each category will win financial and/or mentorship support. This year, PedalTap will be going to MIT on November 10-12 to participate in the “products & services” category. Along with winning a prize, Nakibaala says, “the thing I’m looking forward to most is identifying and meeting potential partners that can help scale our innovation.”

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