That calm afternoon, Kenyans received heartbreaking news; terrorists had struck, killing tens of people at the West Gate mall and maiming several others.
Amid the confusion and rescue efforts, an appeal for blood to save survivors was made through the media.
In their good natured way, Kenyans responded promptly, ready to donate blood and save the lives of their fellow countrymen.
But there was a problem; with the confusion at the hospitals handling the terror survivors around Nairobi, the willing donors did not have clear guidance on how to support the life rescuing mission.
The tight situation the country was in triggered the thoughts of two Kenyan youth; Francis Kilemi and Aaron Ogunde to find a technological solution that would save lives.
“We followed media updates and learnt that even those who were willing to donate did not know how experienced hiccups logistical hiccups,” Ogunde says.
“We decided to put our heads together to come up with a technological solution that would bring patients in need of blood and willing donors on the same platform.” This is how DamuSasa was born.
Apart from college education, Ogunde and Kilemi are beneficiaries of the Presidential Talent Academy Programme that is domiciled at the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Authority.
In 2015, they pitched the prototype and two years later, it was ready for piloting.
“Through the help of the ICT Authority, we managed to pilot the project at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH). We received positive feedback that enabled us to improve it. Presently, we have rolled it to over 130 hospitals in the country,” said Ogunde.
According to Kilemi, Damu-Sasa is an end-to-end cloud based blood services information management system.
“The system generates value and creates efficiencies at every node in the blood services value chain,” says Kilemi who is the Co-founder of Damu-Sasa System Limited (DSL), based in Nairobi.
DSL is a subsidiary company of the Advanced IT Solutions Limited (AISL), which specializes in a wide range of cutting-edge technology solutions.
Dr Matunda Nyanchama, an IT specialist who has mentored Kilemi and Ogunde says the KNBTS has endorsed the Damu-Sasa system and more people are interested to support and adopt it.
“The largest consumers of donated blood are mothers and newborn babies. We have learnt that some women die at delivery rooms due to lack of blood. This is why agencies that deal with mother-child care have keen interest in what we are doing,” Dr Nyanchama who is the Executive chairman at Damu-Sasa says.
He says, at first, they underestimated the potential of the technology until they carried an in-depth survey at hospitals across the country.
The technology is available on various modes, including installation of an android application on phones and is installed for free.
“This technology will make long queues in search of blood. It will also help those who show interest to donate blood to know where it is needed, book and have the booking confirmed before he moves there,” Dr Nyanchama says.
It will also offer regular and relevant real time messages, consolidate one’s blood donation history, provide health tips, be an interaction platform with like-minded individuals and make Kenyans maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Need for blood escalated in 2020 due to the outbreak of COVID-19 since schools and other learning institutions that are largely depended on for voluntary donors were closed indefinitely to combat spread of the virus.
The government is seeking to address policy such that it stops depending on students and encourage a blood donation culture amongst Kenyans of good health.
Religious and cultural beliefs, fear of contraction or discovery that one is sick and disinterest to donate for strangers are among reasons that contribute to the existing poor blood donation culture.
“But Kenyans should know that there are health benefits when you donate blood. They include reduced risk of cancer, saving lives and confirming one’s health status,” Dr Nyanchama says.
He argues that Kenyans should also appreciate that donating blood is a civil responsibility as then country can replenish its blood bank and ensure reduced deaths due to shortages.
Devis Orina, a resident of Nyamira who has never donated blood says he will only do so when the patient in need is known to him.
“I hear hospitals sell blood yet Kenyans donate it for free. This discourages me,” Orina said.
But Dr Nyanchama says the cost attached to blood is not essentially a charge for the commodity but its handling from donation, screening, separation, storage to transfusion.
“This may cost between Sh8, 000 and Sh10, 000. I hope it will be covered in health insurance covers like NHIF,” Dr Nyanchama said.
Health experts say that while women can donate after every four months, men can do so in every three months.
A unit of blood can help up to ten patients, especially babies. It becomes also handy especially during accidents involving multiple critically injured victims.
Essentially, according to Dr Nyanchama, the technology can help know where blood is available, track it from donation to transfusion, attract more donors and increase safety of blood.
Experts say that blood should be handled with great care. It has to be refrigerated and can only be transfused within 30 minutes once it is taken from the fridge.
Most hospitals in the country do not have machines to extract blood components like red blood cells, platelets and plasma as it happens elsewhere in the world.
A few, for instance St Getrude Hospital have machines that can extract that particular component of blood that is needed through a process called Aphresis.
Being a good ambassador by donating blood never goes unrecognized and unappreciated particularly by patients and their relatives.
In 2019, former Health CS Cecily Kariuki awarded recognition certificates to the world’s highest blood donor Mr Arjun Prasad Mainali, 51, as well as Kenya’s leading male and female blood donors Mr Alpha Sanya and Aisha Dafalla respectively.
By that time, Mainali had donated blood 172 times since 1987 while Mr Sanya and Ms Dafalla, 56, had done the same 91 and 64 times respectively.
“It is sad to note that, 600,000 pregnant women die annually due to lack of blood in Africa and this sad scenario can be reversed if healthy people donate blood regulary,” Mainali was quoted as saying.
“Donating blood is not a harmful practice and should be embraced by all healthy individuals.”
Ms. Dafalla also urged women to adopt the practice in a bid to avert the high mortality rates among pregnant women while Mr Sanya lauded the CS for recognizing donors who donated blood regularly to save lives.
According to the World Health Organization guidelines for the proportion of donors relative to total population, Kenya should be collecting as much as one million units of blood a year.
Kenya’s population is 47 million, so even if just 1% donated blood, the country would have at least 470,000 units.
But in 2018/2019, only 164,000 units of blood were collected, much less than these guidelines, as Kenyans are reluctant to donate. The figures have not changed much over the years.
In addition, in 2018, 77% of people who donated blood were first-time donors. The figures could be lower for 2020 due to the Corona-virus pandemic, according to experts.
It is also worth nothing that most Kenyans are hesitant to donate blood, unless the patient at hand is a relative or close friend.
80% of funding for blood collection programme came from outside donors, according to a recent government report.
This ensured there was money for essential supplies, personnel and other blood safety-related costs.
The funding also went towards an outreach programme with mobile units collecting blood in schools, universities and other public places around the country.
The main donor was the US government through the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief – known as Pepfar for short. It’s a programme to help save the lives of those suffering from HIV/Aids around the world.
The government has not been sleeping on its ears as shortage of blood bites the nation.
The Kenya National Blood Transfusion Services Act -2020, seeks to address the gaps, although it appears little is being achieved.
The objects of this Act is to enable the systematic supervision of recruitment of voluntary non-remunerated blood donors and collecting, testing, processing, storing, issuing, distributing, and transfusing of blood and blood products as well as disposal of waste blood.
It also seeks to enable implementation of a national voluntary non-remunerated blood donor system; and (c) enhance contribution towards universal access to an adequate and safe national blood supply.
Guided and working within the confines of this act, the innovators are hopeful that with adoption of the technology, many lives will be saved.
The KNBTS was established in 2000 following the terrorist bomb attack on the US Embassy building in downtown Nairobi in 1998 where more than 200 people were killed while 5,000 others were injured.
The KNBTS has six Regional Blood Transfusion Centres (RBTCs); Nairobi, Embu, Nakuru, Eldoret, Kisumu and Mombasa and 14 satellite centers located in Machakos, Kisii, Voi, Meru, Naivasha, Kakamega, Kericho, Nyeri, Garissa, Malindi, Thika, Lodwar, Bungoma and Kitale.
The six RBTCs and 14 satellites carry out blood collections, grouping, storage, and distribution except for Naivasha and Kericho. Blood testing and processing is restricted to the six RBTCs except for preparation of packed red cells that is also done at a few selected cells.
The ups and down in innovation
Francis Kilemi and Aaron Ogunde have not had a smooth ride in their pet dream that is now a reality. In fact, the frustrations along the way would have dimmed the dream of the duo who are in their late 20s.
Due to their age and culture in the country, some heads of institutions dismissed their idea as unworkable.
“It is unbelievable how some believe that someone from overseas can figure out the challenges they are facing as institutions and offer solutions. Kenya should have faith in its youth. We can provide solutions to problems affecting various sectors of our economy,” Kilemi says.
Going by their experience, there is need for awareness creation in government circles as well as the private sector for attitude change in favour of local innovations.
There should also be healthy conversations among key players.
The two found it very difficult to get the attention of company heads. This disadvantages the youth in favor of their foreign counterparts who get support from their local mission to effectively work with local authorities in the country.
There is also need for leadership that is in tune with change, and creation of an environment where the exit of one manager does not mean collapse of an idea that was at adoption stage.
They noted that Dr Matunda Nyanchama who is an IT specialist had been their mentor, coach and advocate in organizational environments.
They hope that with their integrated partners, they will be valued in the blood services ecosystem, playing a contributory role in ensuring an increased national supply of blood, according to the mission of Damu-Sasa.
The partners already on board include Amref, Kenya Red Cross, The Standard Group, Villgro, Posta and UNFPA.