From litter to limbs

Eureka moments come to entrepreneurs in different ways — for Marta Vânia Uetela of Mozambique, her idea arose when a friend who lost his leg in a car accident had to find an affordable prosthetic to be able to walk again.

He found that prosthetics were too expensive or the wait time to obtain one was too long.

Armed with an engineering degree and her leadership training in business and entrepreneurship through the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), Uetela began developing a prosthetics business called BioMec to help her friend.

Birth of BioMec

Uetela needed to source plastic and other materials for the prosthetics in an affordable way to keep costs low. It turns out the material she needed was washing up on the shores of Mozambique.

Machine creating prosthetic limb (Courtesy of BioMec)
The prosthetics are manufactured with BioMec’s 3D printers for amputees in Mozambique and Angola. (Courtesy of BioMec)

Mozambique has more than 2,400 kilometers of coastline, which fishers rely on as a major source of income. Unfortunately, litter and debris — especially plastic waste and discarded fishing nets — threaten those fishing villages and communities.

During the pandemic, environmental groups organized cleanup campaigns along the coastline. Hundreds of volunteers collected discarded plastic, not knowing what to do with all of it.

Saving the Mozambique coast

Uetela asked herself: Why not recycle the discarded plastic and fishing nets to manufacture prosthetics?

Drawing on her YALI training, she identified and recruited partners for her venture, including a quasi-governmental company called ProAzul that recycles materials collected from the sea.

Woman holding prosthetic limb and empty plastic bottles (Courtesy of BioMec)
Uetela displays one of the prosthetics she manufactures and the type of material from which it came. (Courtesy of BioMec)

“In school, we were taught how to build things, but not how to transition dreams into an actual business,” Uetela said. “The YALI program was a great opportunity to network with others, and — spoiler alert — I’m working with some of them right now.”

Developing the technology for prosthetics

In 2020, Uetela developed a prototype and spent the next six months securing funding for research.

She also partnered with the Embassy of the United Kingdom and the Embassy of Ireland, which both provided technical support for the fabrication production line of the operation. Although the prosthetics use recycled materials for the limbs, Uetela also uses silicone for the prosthetics’ sleeves, where the residual limb is attached.

Expanding business and the future

Uetela’s first prototype went to her friend Ivan. Using recycled materials and 3D printers, she reduced the cost of the prosthetics’ frames from hundreds of dollars to an average of $45.

The company also takes a unique approach to designing prosthetics. Clients get to collaborate on the final look of the limbs.

Seated man looking at tablet while client waits for prosthetic leg (Courtesy of BioMec)
In addition to the recycled materials used to manufacture the client’s prosthetic, silicone sleeves are used to form fit on the client’s residual leg to ensure comfort and mobility. (Courtesy of BioMec)

“It’s one of the challenges for us, because our baseline of clients are very young people,” Uetela said. “It has never been just about the prosthesis, but how we can make them feel good and build self-esteem and creativity with them.”

Now she is running a pilot program with more than 700 clients in Mozambique and Angola, where she partners with another YALI alumnus, Telmo Bumba, who has become an associate of BioMec.

Uetela is thankful for the leadership skills she gained through YALI and is hoping to expand her business to creating prosthetic arms in the near future.

A version of this story appeared in Medium.