How Kenyan inventor made history winning Africa’s biggest prize for engineering innovation with her vaccine fridge

On June 15 2022, Kenyan engineer Norah Magero became the first Kenyan to win the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation for her VacciBox invention. VacciBox is a small, mobile, solar-powered fridge that safely stores and transports medicines like vaccines for use in field vaccinations and remote clinics, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Magero came up with her invention after seeing how farmers she worked with in remote locations needed cold storage but lacked a reliable power supply, BBC reporte During the COVID-19 pandemic when healthcare workers had cold-chain challenges, her invention became useful. She designed VacciBox to chill vaccines and ensure that they reach areas where Kenya’s national grid is yet to get to.

“VacciBox was designed with our local challenges in mind. It’s versatile, reliable and localized. We’re ensuring that it works the way healthcare workers need it to work for the conditions they face each day, so that they can save lives without worrying about technology, “said Magero.

Her portable 40-liter VacciBox can transport blood and tissue and it can be monitored remotely. Besides having a telescopic handle for easy mobility, it can also be wheeled or mounted on a bicycle, motorbike or boat.

Magero won the first prize of £ 25,000 (30,000) among the four finalists selected for the award. The three other finalists, who each won 10,000, were Nigerian Virtue Oboro who is behind Crib A’glow; Jack Fletcher from South Africa who created HYENA POWER POD; and Togolese Gaël Egbidi known for his Solimi prepaid card.

Commenting on the award, one of the judges, judge Alessandra Buonfino said:  “We’re delighted to award VacciBox the Africa Prize. The potential impact of improving the cold chain delivery of medicine – especially vaccines – to rural areas is immense. Norah truly represents the idea that one innovator can change an entire community. We look forward to seeing her and her team scale this innovation to reach even more people. “

Magero is not only the first Kenyan to win the award but also the second woman. In September 2020, Charlette N’Guessan from Ivory Coast became the first woman to win the prize. According to the academy, N’Guessan’s team invented the Bace API that uses facial recognition and artificial intelligence to verify identities remotely.

Norah Magero’s journey to help her community address a challenge led to breakthrough
Under the wide skies of rural Kenya, the sun’s rays have become one engineer’s solution to helping everyone access the Covid-19 vaccine, no matter where they live. Norah Magero, co-founder and chief executive of sustainable solutions company Drop Access, designed the solar-powered VacciBox to chill vaccines and enable them to get to areas Kenya’s national grid has not yet reached. But Magero didn’t set out to use her appliances to help people get jabbed. She says her “lightbulb” idea came when she was approached by Kenyan farmers to find ways to keep their milk from turning sour during transit.

After the coronavirus pandemic struck and vaccines became available in Kenya, the team realised that the cool box solved two problems in one: Not only could it store vaccines and keep them cool, it was small enough to be portable, and so could be used to transport vaccine vials to the most remote outposts while keeping them at the right temperature.

The concept was brought to life with the help of investors including RES4Africa Foundation and Startup Energy. Each 50 litre box holds up to seven vaccine vials or any medication that needs to be stored under cold chain technology – a vital infrastructure that protects the biological products in medicines that are time and temperature-sensitive.

The VacciBox can transport vaccines in two temperature ranges, between 2 C to 8 C for the AstraZeneca jab and down to minus 20 C for mRNA vaccines. It has a USB port for mobile phones and is small enough to be transported several kilometres on a bike or motorcycle.

“I’ve seen people carry ice cubes in flasks to carry vials, so if they keep it overnight they’re in trouble,” Magero says. “It was all manual – and we wanted to reduce the manual data recording too, with traceability.”

To reach Maasai nomadic communities in Kenya, Magero says portability is the key factor: “Healthcare programmes should be accessible on the move. If a mother cannot access the vaccine when she needs it, she is likely not to come back for it.”

Sustainability is an important consideration for Magero and the focus for her organisation, Drop Access. With most of Kenya’s vaccination hubs relying on mains power, she is excited at the prospect of her fridges reaching further afield.

Beyond Kenya, she has orders for the VacciBox from Mozambique, Ethiopia, Malawi, Nigeria and India. The team is targeting new investors, such as Unicef, the vaccine alliance Gavi, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

“This is beyond me now,” Magero says. “I want Drop Access to diversify beyond just refrigeration. I hope to see other organisations coming in, partnerships with Unicef and the like, so that we get to achieve a bigger purpose – something beyond us. That is how I see our vision.”

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