Don Felipe plows the land by hand. He uses a shovel to dig and covers the grooves with another tool. He grows corn on his land in the community of Tocopa, near Lake Titicaca, more than 100 kilometers from the city of El Alto. He works hard under the Altiplano sun. It would be a typical story of a farmer in rural Bolivia, were it not for the fact that Don Felipe lost both hands and part of his forearms 45 years ago in a dynamite accident.
Last year, Don Felipe’s story caught the attention of Roli Mamani, 32, who went to visit him with the goal of getting his hands back on him. He carried some samples of prosthetics in his bag to calculate the dimensions and promised to make a pair of hands for him to order. Several weeks later, Mamani gave the 70-year-old back limbs he had lost when he was in his 30s. Don Felipe can be seen grinning from ear to ear as he tests out his new prosthetics by lifting a glass of Coca-Cola.
Mamani, an electronics wizard, says that for him, technology is the closest he knows to magic. As a “maker”, I realize that there is a lack of solutions People with mobility disabilitiesEspecially those who do not have financial resources in their country. Now, for the past four years, through his Robotics Creators project, he’s been addressing this health technology shortage by creating integrated electronic systems and prosthetics for people in Bolivia and beyond.
Mamani, an electronics engineer, was first interested in robots when he was six and “was fond of LEDs and was curious about how the light worked”. His interest was also driven by his desire to have more games. This interest led him to found his company with his brother Juan Carlos, a physiotherapist, with the aim of helping people who have lost a limb or have lost the ability to move in an existing limb. He started creating animations, moving on to combat, educational, and competitive robotics, but he was aware that this didn’t go as far as he wanted.
“I realized if we didn’t bring this knowledge to a point where it could really make a difference, it wouldn’t make much sense,” says Mamani, who welcomed EL PAÍS into his workshop in Achocalla, a small community 15 kilometers away. From the bustle of the Bolivian capital. “When I was in college, I often wondered why there were no solutions in our country in this field. Based on the experience and knowledge we gained, my brother and I dared to provide a solution for someone with a transcranial amputation using 3D printing.”
The Robotics Creators workshop is located in an area surrounded by eucalyptus trees, a lake and gentle, sloping hills. People come to this secluded space from different parts of La Paz, but also from very remote rural areas and even from abroad. Mamani estimates that in the four years since their founding, they have been able to help more than 200 families. Among his patients are children, young adults, the elderly, and even pets – a field he calls furry electronics. “The greatest reward is to see the person smile again, to see a mother cry seeing her child be given a new chance,” he says. “These are things money can never buy; they are experiences that fill your life with good energy.”
Speaking in Robotics Creators, a space filled with animated characters like Iron Man scale armor, rescued dinosaurs and robot toys, Mamani says that to get to this point in his project, he’s also encountered difficulties, ranging from a lack of large-scale 3D printers that don’t have an industrial scanner . Other challenges were the lack of experience with anatomical design as well as having to learn how to interact with people with disabilities. “First, they have to psychologically heal so that later they can help us achieve a positive outcome,” Mamani says. “Everything takes time. Earlier, we were dealing with simpler problems, but then we had people with a complete shoulder separation, and these are more complex situations that require more experience.”
According to 2019 data from the Unified National Register of Persons with Disabilities System, there are 95,884 persons with disabilities in Bolivia, 38% of whom have physical and motor disabilities. According to the 2021 report entitled Inclusion of persons with disabilities in Latin America and the Caribbean: a path to sustainable developmentThe rate in the countryside is double that in urban areas – 15.9% versus 8.7%. This disproportionate number of people with disabilities in rural areas is a global phenomenon and is probably due to the difficulty of accessing preventive health care and treatment, and Higher rates of poverty.
Mamani understands that working with technology takes money, and most of those who come into robotics designers are people with limited capabilities. “A person who has lost a limb is someone who is usually exposed to dangerous work because they have no choice,” he says. Sometimes they want to earn a little more and they can’t get a secure job. All too often an accident happens, and life turns for the worse.”
For this reason, solutions manufactured in Achocalla cost no more than a high-end cell phone. In many cases, the patient is required to pay only 50% of the expenses; They bear the cost of the materials, while Mamani and his team take over the work.
“The price for a conventional prosthesis can start at $5,000, a mechanical prosthesis is $10,000, and then $16,000 and up for an electronic prosthesis,” Mamani says. “This is really a lot of money for the people we work with. We have figured out how to make prosthetics in the most effective and affordable way. There are people who come from rural areas to attend the workshop and ask for help without being able to speak Spanish. In these cases, we see what If we have the materials and we donate directly without paying them a penny.”
Mamani makes up for some of the shortfall in the work they do in other areas such as rental and creation of animation, educational and combat robotics, as well as design and 3D printing services. However, importing components to improve their projects can be complicated by the economic factor and lack of government support.
Despite these limitations, the 3D printers at Robotics Creators work tirelessly to create biomechanical replacements that require only an elbow motion to activate; They also created the robotic type, with integrated internal circuits and a battery, which uses a sensor that works on the motor skills of those without elbow movement. “The raw materials are made of plastic and its derivatives, and they are also biodegradable,” Mamani says. “So, we’re taking care of the planet when the prosthetics are done away with.”
But Mamani’s real dream has yet to come true. In the future, he and his team want to build an electronic rehabilitation center that has the potential to develop robotic exoskeletons for paralyzed people: “I think that in addition to just studying and getting a job, we also need to contribute to life,” Mamani says. “There are those who believe that making robots is not a real business when there are miracles that can be done using technology.”
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