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Koalaa launches pilot project in Sierra Leone

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

At Koalaa, we are on a mission to make prosthetics accessible and affordable for everyone on the planet. And we’re delighted to say that ambition took a significant step forward in 2021, when we embarked on our first pilot project in Africa.

Up to that point, we had mainly been working in the UK, but we’ve always known there is a huge need for affordable and comfortable prosthetics all over the world. This is particularly true in areas that have had a recent conflict and within lower/middle income countries.

We were lucky enough to secure a grant as part of the Assistive Technology Impact Fund (ATIF), under the banner of AT2030, which aims to increase access to assistive technology of all kinds, all over the world. The ATIF grant focuses on Africa, so we picked Sierra Leone as the first country we’d try working in.

Why Sierra Leone?

As a country, Sierra Leone has a disproportionately high number of amputees; mainly because of the country’s recent history of civil war but also due to other factors, such as road traffic accidents. So, there is a huge need for prosthetics. However, this is coupled with a major lack of access.

We had previously conducted a feasibility study looking at Sierra Leone, having secured a grant from the Global Challenges Research Fund, which was awarded to us by Innovate UK, and it confirmed a clear need.

We were confident that our Koalaa prosthetics could offer a solution, so it was the perfect place to launch our first pilot study.

Fact finding and testing our ‘clinic in a bag’

We knew we didn’t want to try and tackle the problem, or to make too many assumptions, while sat behind our laptops, so we headed out there in person in September on a 10-day fact finding mission.

Our trip saw us meeting with representatives from the government to discuss how we might work together. But most importantly, it was a chance for us to speak with potential users about our prosthetics and support services.

We took two suitcases with us, filled with everything we needed to fit a number of users with a tailormade Koalaa sleeve. We were keen to explore the idea of a ‘clinic in a bag’, to see whether the concept worked and could be used to fit people with our prosthetics and provide them with a follow up service.

Over the next 10 days, we tested the process and validated it by fitting around 20 people. The result being that it worked really well!

We quickly saw that this was an approach we could scale up to help people across the country, as it didn’t require infrastructure or too much technical expertise on the ground and local people could be trained to deliver it. As a model, it offers a way to make our prosthetics accessible for anyone, anywhere.

Collaborations and partnership

Another important result of our trip was that we formed a relationship and started working with the National Rehabilitation Centre, which is part of the Ministry of Health in Sierra Leone. The centre has several clinics across the country and offers rehabilitation and care, including prostheses.

Working with the local government in Sierra Leone means we will be able to pass on our skills, in terms of our service, how we fit prostheses and all the follow up that goes with that.

With local health care workers involved and able to manage the process on the ground, it becomes a sustainable project that can carry on helping people at scale.

Feedback and key learnings

Koalaa has always been a user-focused company. Our prosthetics have been created with the involvement of our end users at every stage of the process. Their feedback and ideas are what guides everything we do.

To date, this feedback had mainly been from users in the UK, so we were very interested to gather insights from users in Sierra Leone, regarding what they thought of the current design and how they might use our prosthetics.

One of the key learnings from our trip was that the design of our current prosthetics needed to change for users in Sierra Leone. Users told us that the choice of fabrics and colours didn’t work for them.

While they loved the functional aspect and could see the many ways they might be able to use our prosthetics, they told us they wouldn’t be comfortable wearing them outside the home environment. This was a problem we needed to solve.

Users in Sierra Leone wanted something that would blend in with their skin colour and to have the option of a cosmetic attachment (which looked as close to a human hand as possible). This is because the limb different community in Sierra Leone faces