Social venture provides localized, distributed manufacturing in Kenya

Kijenzi, recently launched as a company, fills void in African supply chain


By Samantha Chavanic

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a Peace Corps teacher in Tanzania, Ben Savonen, who received his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from Penn State in 2019, found he didn’t have access to the lab equipment he needed to teach chemistry. Soon, he realized the problem was much larger than the availability of chemistry lab equipment. Many industries in the country could not easily obtain the materials they needed, signaling a significant supply chain issue.

Upon returning to the United States to finish his master’s degree at Michigan Technological University, Savonen partnered with his adviser, John Gershenson, current director of Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) at Penn State, to redesign 3D printers to solve the supply-chain issue he discovered. Quickly, the two realized a new printer wasn’t the correct solution.

“The problem wasn’t the 3D printer — the problem really was the ecosystem in which 3D printers are used,” Gershenson said. “So, what we needed to do was simplify that because even with a 3D printer, how many people can actually do the design work that’s necessary to print great parts?”

When the two came to Penn State in 2017 — Savonen to complete his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering and Gershenson to lead the HESE program housed in the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs — they brought their ecosystem solution with them.

“What we do here in HESE is take kernels of ideas and turn them into real social ventures by working with local individuals, communities and nonprofits,” Gershenson said. “It was a great place to work through the business issues surrounding the ecosystem solution and some of the service model issues for it to get ready to launch.”

With the help of Penn State faculty, students and entrepreneurial resources, Gershenson and Savonen’s solution became a HESE venture named Kijenzi.

“Besides the natural progression of the work, Penn State allowed us to be surrounded by a large group of like-minded people and to expand the Kijenzi team,” Savonen said. “It has been great working at a university that truly understands and supports social entrepreneurship. From the beginning, Penn State has been in our corner and we are eager to show the world the kinds of companies that can come from Penn State.”

Business model and production

Kijenzi refocused its efforts on the additive manufacturing of customized and spare equipment parts, with a specific emphasis on health care. In the summer of 2019, Kijenzi launched outside of HESE and Penn State. It is a registered company in both the United States and Kenya. With a catalog of more than 70 parts concentrating on medical equipment and occupational therapy, the for-profit social venture works toward accomplishing its mission of social good.

When a hospital needs one of the 70 replacement parts, it places an order with Kijenzi. The State College-based office sends an electronic file of the part to the printer farm to be printed. Once the piece is printed, it can be picked up at the facility or delivered directly to the hospital.

If a custom piece is requested, a team of local Kenyan biomedical engineers works with the health care facility to learn the restraints and requirements for the piece. The Kenyan team then relays the information to the State College engineering team for design and quality testing. Upon design and testing completion, an electronic file of the design is sent to Kenya for final functional testing. Once it’s printed, the part is added to the catalog and becomes available to all customers.

“We’ve got a whole bunch of institutions that don’t have access to the whole global supply chain. Because of that you have institutions in the business of furthering the public good who cannot help as many people as they otherwise would just because they lacked supplies and parts,” Gershenson said. “That’s what Kijenzi aims to do — to fix that particular problem. Whatever it takes to fix that problem, we want to be a part of the solution.”

To properly serve its customers, Kijenzi completes localized distributed manufacturing in Kisumu, Kenya through the use of its manufacturing facilities known as printer farms. These printer farms are located within a day’s delivery of a health care facility.

Growth and potential

The team is currently working to set up its first printer farm, with a launch date of November 2019. It hopes to see facility approval by the Kenyan Bureau of Standards by December. The Kenyan side of the operation is led by Savonen.

“I am heading back to get Kijenzi’s printing operations up and running in Kenya and also to get our Kenyan biomedical engineering staff running,” he said. “This is an exciting time. We are hoping to have our manufacturing approval soon and we have a long list of customers excited for our products. I’m also taking the lead over our quality assurance testing both in-house and with our third-party product approvals.”

The first printer farm will be on the shores of Lake Victoria, one of the African Great Lakes. Gershenson explained that this first farm will be Kijenzi’s pilot test.

“We believe wholeheartedly in the profitability of this localized distributed manufacturing process,” Gershenson said. “This first printer farm is going to prove out this model — that the revenue potential exceeds the cost of setting up and running such a farm and running such a company.”

Because of this, Gershenson said he believes Kijenzi’s future is bright.

“I think we can do two things at once — we can run a profitable company that can scale worldwide and at the same time deliver phenomenal value to customers who desperately need the parts to do the good that they do every day,” he said.

Because of the venture’s focus on localized distribution, Gershenson and Savonen see limitless possibilities for Kijenzi.

Gershenson described the health care field as a fantastic starting point, but also as just the beginning for the company, as there are also needs in schools, humanitarian relief organizations and other institutions.

“It is finally time to make localized, distributed manufacturing a reality for medical parts in East Africa,” Savonen said. “I think as long as we stay focused on the mission of bringing localized, distributed manufacturing to situations where the typical global supply chain is bypassing people, Kijenzi can be a significant force in changing what manufacturing looks like in places like Kenya.”

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Megan Lakatos

laptop screen displaying part to be 3-d printed

Currently, Kijenzi designs and manufactures 3D-printed parts for medical equipment and occupational therapy. IMAGE: KATE MYERS/PENN STATE

3-d printer printing a part
A 3D printer prints one of Kijenzi’s medical device replacement parts. IMAGE: KATE MYERS/PENN STATE



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