By Sheriff Badmus
As announced by one of the team members, Engr. A.U. Sambo on his Facebook wall on 7 April 2020, a team of engineers led by Engr. Faisal Sani Bala under the aegis of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi, has designed 4 different devices to help fight COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria.
The devices are:
One is an automatic ventilator which with solar powering and DC backup which helps patient with breathing difficulty or any other respiratory disease. Ventilators are currently scarce and it is critical for patients that need it, the post read.
Two is aerosol box a protective device that gives medical personnel extra protection when handling patients with COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases, particularly during intubation.
Three is automatic disinfection chamber which has been described a necessity “as it ensures containment of outbreak where disease pathogens get transferred from one person to another.”
The last is CT scan-based COVID-19 detection, which was developed through the use of computing and artificial intelligence. “This solution is a software/app that runs through the CT Scan result of patients to detect early COVID-19 symptoms from lung.”
Technical designs are product of shrewdness, dedication and years of serious studying and experimentations; they are forged from persistence and perseverance. In a bid to preach diligence and positivism in a dire situation, The Transverse’s Sheriff Badmus had an interview with Faisal Sani Bala about his recent feat. Enjoy the excerpts:
The Transverse: Can we meet you, sir?
My name is FaisaI Sani Bala. I am an assistant lecturer in the Department of Mechatronics and Systems Engineering, team leader of the COVID-19 Engineering Project at Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU), launched 7April 2020.
The Transverse: It has been aired that you developed 4 items to help fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, have you and your team been thinking about it before the pandemic?
Yes and no, because before the pandemic broke out, we were not actively working on any of the solutions. However, we had conceived working on ventilators long ago and we even started to put one or two things together but the work was not beyond ordinary concept; so that was 2015 and the design we were thinking of at that time was not a physical prototype. We were thinking of simulating a ventilator model. We also have tons of work on cancer detection with one of my final year project students. And we had to use the same skill and methodology we use for the cancer detection to come up with COVID-19 detection software. We started and finished the whole work within a span of 8-days.
The Transverse: Prior to the devices you developed, have you developed any devices before? If yes, what are their functions and have they been commercially produced?
Prior to this device I have developed several other devices. My first engineering project was an Electronic Matrix Display Board which I designed and developed for a commercial radio station. Afterwards I did one to two projects. The major one is a solar-powered smart irrigation kit which I had developed and it is currently commercially available.
We’ve been trying to push to see if the government can provide the solar-powered smart irrigation kit to smallholder farmers because it is a life changing kit which is versatile, easy to use for irrigation, solar powering and have a lot of other social impact on the farmer. I have also developed solar-powered automatic re-circulatory aquaculture system which is modularized. We are planning to make it commercially available shortly.
I also worked on some projects with the Malaysian government on food quality control. We have worked on a device that will be helping in the detection of unwanted types of fats in food; and I also participated in the development of automatic cloth folding machine meant to help small scale laundry business enterprises in Malaysia. The work has been concluded and I was deeply involved. Also is the Soil Master pro which tests soil parameters.
The Transverse: Considering that you worked with several people to land these devices, how did you maintain communication and coordination? Was it really easy?
I think to be able to work with a short notice and come up with something tangible would mean that you have to exercise good leadership. Without good leadership you can’t tell people to give you good results. Although I conceptualized the project and did the initial design but I had to work with people that can actualize the goal so I tried as much as possible to see that my team is well motivated and I had to take my time to choose the right people.
Although there are several other good people outside the team that I should have worked with; however, there was time constraint so I had to act very fast and those people responded immediately when I told them that we had a project at hand to work with. Due to movement restriction some of our team members had to work from another stat like one of my software developers; she is Jeniffer Chukwu and she had to work from Abia.
We had the support to buy the materials we needed from the Vice-Chancellor, so we did that and I also had two other volunteer students that joined us, they are actually our former students so it was out of volunteerism that we did everything.
The Transverse: Considering, the short notice, how many hours per day did you and your team dedicate to the project to ensure meaningful results?
I would have to say doing things right is not always easy and to do things right you have to come with a lot of sacrifice and selflessness but the most important thing is the initial motivation and having the prerequisite skills required and the perseverance which is needed to execute projects. To ensure the success of the project, for the eight days which we were at work, we had chipped in an average of 16 hours daily to ensure that everything had been done in good time.
The Transverse: Sir, what would you say are the comparative advantages of the devices you developed over others?
Well, I will have to say that for the devices that once they get to the end users, I would like to have the testimony of end users. I wouldn’t like to overblow the trumpet. However, our ventilator has an extra battery backup as well as an input for solar powering; so, for an event of light going off in the hospital, the device would give extra hours without interruption and later you can use a solar panel to recharge it.
The Transverse: What advice would you give to the government on homegrown solutions?
My advice to government on home-grown solutions is to improve the capacity of those that have demonstrated ability to produce solutions locally. I think their capacity can be improved through government intervention by providing them with appropriate kind of tools and making it easy for them to access the materials required for manufacturing.
The Government would equally need to patronize; so is the private sector as patronage is important. As far as the COVID-19 response is concerned there has to be a fast-track in funding researches related to the pandemic. So, if anybody has demonstrated any kind of competence or promising solution, it has to be immediately funded to take it to the next level and this is also applicable to post COVID-19. The government has to always act as if there is a pandemic threat around.
The Transverse: Most people believe Nigerian engineers especially the academics are mainly theoretical but you and your team have proven otherwise. What can you state on the state of invention in Nigeria in respect to the academia?
I believe the Nigerian academia can contribute their quota in developing this country; we have more than capable hands. We have many competent people to do meaningful research. But one major constraint is funding, training and strategizing our research to align with our national priorities.
And I believe the government is trying to make that happen through the TETFUND research grant but research grant has to come from other bodies too. There has to be a distinction between funding for fundamental and applied research. It is necessary that every sector of the economy is research driven.
For that, grant should come from several institutions this has to be put in place and transparent. The government would really have to work on the transparency involved in funding of research. Sometimes we have researchers who are really dedicated in our universities but sometimes the process to access research grant or funding from the government gives headache and there are some bad eggs that are trying to sabotage the government’s effort in trying to extort potential researchers. So, such bad eggs should be fished out and dealt with accordingly. And also, the welfare of researchers should not be ignored; no researcher can do meaningful research when he/she is hungry.
The Transverse: Lastly is vote of thanks, whom would you like to appreciate for the results achieved?
I would like to appreciate our Vice-Chancellor for providing the support and grants required to purchase materials for the project; and also, for his plea to our union, ASUU, to support us in doing this research. We are also grateful to the Dean of Faculty of Engineering and the Head of Department, Department of Mechatronics and Systems Engineering.
Most importantly, I am very much more grateful and indebted to my team members for their reasoning and hardwork. On a final note, I would say Nigerian Universities have demonstrated their competence and they have also demystified the long assumption that these universities are not powerhouses of knowledge. So, the government has to react and reciprocate in the same manner. Each university should be funded and the funding should be well enough.
The protracted strike should come to an end through the government and ASUU coming back to chart a way that would make our universities more resilient and become world standard. And the public have a role to play by supporting local technology rather than having preference for foreign technology. As it is happening in the case of COVID-19, no one can go out for treatment regardless of whom he/she is, so it is better we use the opportunity of COVID-19 to make things hap pen once and for all. Thank you.