Amani Niyoyita, a Rwandan young innovator, is the brains behind the first Made-in-Rwanda high-tech white canes that are already being distributed to visually impaired people on the market.
“The stick helps the visually impaired person in different ways. It helps them to detect the obstacle which they might bump into. While the previous stick would only detect an obstacle when one touches it, the technology advancement allows one to detect from a long distance as it uses sensors,” he said.
The high-tech white cane which is the first of its kind to be made in Rwanda uses ultrasonic ranging technology to detect obstacles at a distance of 1.2 meters and alert the user through vibrations and sounds.
The smart white stick, he said, also helps to detect if it is night or day time to improve efficiency for users and interact with other members of the public.
“If they reach any darkness such as in any place, the smart white can immediately detect darkness or light,” he said. At night the cane turns blue and red to increase the visibility of the user.
With easy operability, the practicality of use on public transport or cars, being light to carry, and being waterproof, the high-tech white cane, he added, can be tracked.
“With this smart blind stick, you can track where they are located because it has GPS of wherever they are. This means the stick can’t be stolen and go missing because it can be tracked using a mobile phone or machine using a software we have developed,” he explained.
Niyoyita said that the sticks can sound with audible and vibrant sounds and it has traffic or red lights that inform other road users that the cane user needs special attention.
The sounds help those who are visually impaired but are able to hear.
The high-tech white cane which is the first of its kind to be made in Rwanda uses ultrasonic ranging technology to detect obstacles at a distance of 1.2 meters.
For those with multiple disabilities- deaf-blind, the stick is fitted with vibration capability that warns them as needed.
He said that the smart cane is rechargeable to be able to be used for five days with electricity adding it can be charged using a normal phone charger, he said.
The smart white cane itself is made from aluminum, which makes it lighter, portable easy to fold, and be carried in a bag. “It also has an insulator to avoid danger in case they touch electric wires,” he said.
How the innovative idea came
He said that the idea to produce the “electronic and smart blind stick” came, in 2018, after identifying challenges being faced by visually impaired people.
“We visited different people with disabilities assessing challenges that they were facing considering the white cane that was in existence until we managed to create a solution,” he said.
Niyoyita, who studied electronics and telecommunication, was the first one to come up with the idea, he testified.
“After coming up with the idea, I gathered developers and we worked on it as a team of three. In 2018, we joined the YouthConnekt competition organized by the ministry of youth and culture to showcase our idea. We started to compete from sector-level until we were selected among 30 best innovative projects in the country and got cash prizes,” he said.
In 2019, he said they spent a $500 cash prize to improve the project.
“We joined different hackathons and training prepared by institutions that support technology in Rwanda to enhance and improve on our product,” he said.
Hackathon definition, a usually competitive event in which people work in groups on software or hardware projects, with the goal of creating a functioning product by the end of the event.
He said that the team also went to exhibit the innovation in China at the International Youth Innovation conference in 2019.
“We ranked 7th among 30 innovations worldwide during the exhibition. Since then our idea promised that it could benefit many visually impaired people,” he said.
In Rwanda, there are over 400,000 persons with visual impairment according to available statistics.
Back in Rwanda, the team also joined innovations for people with disabilities competition.
“We have now worked with The United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Rwanda Accelerator Lab to deliver on the final product in terms of value addition,” he said.
Currently, Niyoyita is an electronic project developer at Beno Holdings, a Rwandan technology company.
“The product which has been registered has reached end-users. We donated 40 smart white canes during the international meeting of people with disabilities.
We can produce the canes that fit everyone’s size by using our lab. We have the capacity to produce 50 smart canes per day when there is demand and raw materials and we target to expand this capacity” he said.
He said they want to add more features with weather detection where they can detect if it is going to rain.
He said that they are also working on smart white cases for children.
Despite the growing technologies to support people with disabilities, there is a question about their affordability.
Niyoyita said the stick is still expensive adding they are working with Non-government organizations to ensure affordability.
“One cane we have produced can now cost Rwf100, 000 but we want to cut the price with different interventions,” he said.
According to Maxwell Gomera, the Representative of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Rwanda that supported the development of the smart white cane said that most of these technologies are too expensive or not yet available in Low Middle-Income Countries adding they may fail to address local cultural and environmental contexts.
“For example, many smartphone apps to support people who are deaf or blind require high-speed internet connections absent in rural areas,” he said..
It is up to innovators in Low Middle-Income Countries, he said, to lead the development of innovative solutions through direct engagement with affected communities.
Approximately 26.3 million people in Africa are visually impaired. Of these, an estimated 20.4 million have low vision and 5.9 million are blind–about 15.3 percent of the world’s blind population.
Original story on The New Times