A Bolivian technological innovation to benefit the rural population

01.02.2020
In rural areas of Bolivia, any complications from traffic accidents or respiratory infections such as Covid-19 are still treated via manual respiratory assistance. With the support of Swisscontact, Bolivian engineers developed a technological solution for respiratory assistance that is now available in more than 70 rural health centres. This initiative thus reaches rural families often excluded from this type of innovation.

Through the Inclusive Markets project of the Swiss and Swedish Development Cooperation implemented by Swisscontact in Bolivia, engineers from the Mechatronics Engineering programme of the Bolivian Catholic University developed a respiratory assistance device called MAMBU (Mechatronic Ambulatory Breath Unit).

The respiratory assistance device called MAMBU (Mechatronic Ambulatory Breath Unit)
Health personnel of the San Juan de Dios Hospital in Challapata, Oruro, during a training session in the use of MAMBU.

2020 was a tragic year. Practically all the systems or services that governments provide worldwide, not only the health care system, were put to test. Without discrimination of nationality, education or income level, COVID-19 spread, demanding responses that required collective action and tailor-made solutions.

In Bolivia, like in other countries, the investment in applied scientific research is either meager or attached to universities. But for innovative ideas and prototypes to become practical solutions, more than just a big budget is required; one must take risks and invest in trial and error. In addition, teamwork is required, which means forming alliances, sharing knowledge of user markets and regulations. Finally, it needs the conviction that it is in fact possible, and necessary, to develop solutions here and now.

Inclusive markets - impact for the entire population

As part of Swisscontact’s long-term engagement in Bolivia, the project Mercados Inclusivos (Inclusive Markets) has formed alliances with universities, private companies, and public actors. This cooperation centers on a self-managed innovation system that is tailored to small-scale farming in the region. It focuses on going beyond a eureka moment and making collaborative work sustainable, be it in the area of transportation of the cereal and tuber harvests, climatic risk prevention, the automation of production processes and pest management.

Both public and private universities have shown interest in working along these lines and have reached agreements and formed alliances. The mechatronic engineering programme at the Bolivian Catholic University San Pablo, played a key role in the co-organisation of the invention competitions and in the creation of prototypes that showed potential for commercial investment. Moreover, in early 2020, they also committed themselves as innovation developers for small-scale farming in the country.

Bolivian mechanical engineers demonstrate the device.

An unforeseen quarantine

In response to the imminent health danger, the transitional government in Bolivia declared a rigid quarantine towards the end of the first quarter in 2020, which slowed down the dynamics of all productive sectors. In these first days, the urgency of having respiratory assistance systems made available to address complications of severe COVID-19, was publicly identified. Apart from the actions taken by the government, a group of expert engineers and recent graduates, also took on this challenge.

Respiratory assistance units designed and developed in Bolivia for Bolivians

At that time, there was no precedent of such kind of equipment being made in Bolivia - a piece of equipment to be used in a vital situation, with all the regulatory implications this entails. The Inclusive Markets project supported the decision made by that group of engineers in April. It marked the beginning of an epic undertaking that culminated in December 2020 when 70 health care workers were trained and 80 respiratory assistance MAMBU units were delivered. The breathing apparatus was designed, developed in Bolivia and distributed to rural health centres in the country.

Watch part of the MAMBU story documented in this video (Spanish with English subtitles):

In the follwing, some of the main actors of this success story share their experiences and explain what collaborative, alliance-based, systemic, and intersectoral work can achieve.

Fabio Díaz, Director of the mechatronics engineering programme at the Bolivian Catholic University San Pablo

Fabio Díaz, Director of the mechatronics engineering programme at the Bolivian Catholic University

“In order to innovate, it is absolutely necessary to work with public and private alliances. (...) As academics we cannot be experts in all areas. We are going to publish a scientific article about this [the MAMBU experience] but mass production or commercialisation requires other capacities that, as a University, we don’t have. (...) I know that some members of the team [of engineers] that developed MAMBU want to form a company, (...) we believe that with what we have achieved here, there is a sufficient basis to venture in this enterprise.” 

Dr. Sayonara Mordagón, General Practitioner at the San Juan de Dios hospital in Challapata, Oruro

“MAMBU is a very valuable tool that will allow us to give any patient who requires assisted ventilation a better chance of surviving. (...) either due to COVID-19 or because of a traffic accident or any other injury which compromises the respiratory system. (...) Some time ago, we had a pediatric patient who had to be intubated to be able to get manual ventilatory assistance. If we had had this equipment at the time, we would have checked his vital signs here in Challapata, without having to refer him to Oruro”.

José Luis Pereira, National Programme Officer for Development Cooperation of the Swiss Embassy in Bolivia

“Yes, we have made an exception [with MAMBU], because in a certain sense we have departed a little from our traditional area of operations [small-scale farming], but without losing our focus, which is the development of inclusive market systems, with which we have been able to help, or rather participate, in the design of a solution, thought of and made in Bolivia".

The Inclusive Markets project is financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation SDC and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency Sida and implemented by Swisscontact in Bolivia.