Every year, Red Bull Amaphiko selects aspiring social entrepreneurs and helps them incubate their ideas. The programme has been replicated in 15 countries. Grethe Kemp speaks to Portia Mavhungu, who’s invented a device that allows those in wheelchairs to use the toilet without having to be lifted from their chair.
You might not think about it as an able-bodied person, but the simple task of using the toilet can become a hellish ordeal if you're confined to a wheelchair.
A Pretoria-based social entrepreneur is set on changing that. Thirty-year-old Portia Mavhungu is the inventor of Para Tube, a wheelchair device that allows a person with disabilities to use the toilet without having to be lifted out of their chair.
Mavhungu came up with the idea after being confined to a wheelchair for a while after an accident.
“In 2011, I had an accident where I broke my pelvis,” she tells #Trending. “I was in the hospital for several weeks and in a wheelchair for the rest of the year. I fell into a depression over the loss of my independence. I needed my mother to lift me every time I needed to use the toilet.
“I was in this situation for only a short time and thought about how hard it would be for those who experience this their whole lives.”
It was then that she thought about developing something that would empower people to use the toilet without any help.
With the Para Tube, the user pulls the centre part of the seat forward with a handle, and the middle seat flips up in the shape of a toilet. The user then defecates or urinates into a biodegradable bag in the opening. The bag locks in any smell and can then be disposed of in a similar way to a nappy.
This invention is the first of its kind. Its efficiency and use of material offer greater comfort and ease than anything else available on the market.
“The commode, which is our competitor, uses a bucket system. The commode seat is hard and people start sweating and develop sores, and their backs are hurt,” says Mavhungu.
“With us, the seating is breathable material. It has PVC in the centre, so you’re able to wipe it. The seat is waterproof and the height of the seat protects the user’s lumbar spine.”
The device will also be a great help in hospitals.
“We have a shortage of nurses in South Africa,” says Mavhungu. “When you’re in a hospital, you have to wait for a nurse to lift you and place a steel bedpan underneath you.
“I remember being in hospital with a broken pelvis and being taken off morphine. The nurses would put a bedpan underneath me and leave me, and I would just be shaking and in pain and waiting for the nurse to come back to take me off the bedpan.”
Mavhungu says she didn’t decide to become an inventor, but always knew she wanted to help people. She was working for OUTsurance when her mother died from cancer in 2017.
She decided that she no longer wanted to work for a company, and left her job to focus on developing the Para Tube.
Together with her partner, Darushna Chellan, she secured funding from the Technology Innovation Agency, which allowed them to further develop the product under their newly formed company, PRD Logical Solutions.
They are waiting for approval for the Para Tube from the Board of Ethics and the SA Bureau of Standards.
“In the meantime, we are busy with our patents. Our manufacturers have made 20 seats this week and a thousand sanitary bags,” says Mavhungu.
PRD Logical Solutions employs 10 people. It won the medical category at the Gauteng Accelerator Programme awards in 2017, which earned them R500 000 in prize money, along with incubation and mentoring services.
Mavhungu was selected to take part in a business development programme sponsored by the Swiss SA Joint Research Programme. She travelled to Switzerland to present her ideas.
“What drives me is the passion. I know I’ve succeeded when someone has used the device and it’s helped them,” she says.
What is Amaphiko?
Since 2014, the Amaphiko programme has been run in 15 countries, including Brazil and the US.
A new programme is planned for Bradford in the UK next year. During #Trending’s visit there last week, global project leader Ian Calvert said the aim of the programme was to “put the entrepreneurs back together”.
“Amaphiko focuses a lot on the personal development of the entrepreneurs,” Calvert said.
The academy was hosted by Music House KZN and the 1860 Heritage Centre, with the space set up for a week of talks, workshops, one-on-one sessions, presentations and mentorship.
“We bring in experts to make sure that their business models and impact measurements are sound. In this space, you won’t unlock funding and revenue unless you have a clear plan,” said Calvert.
Some of the mentors were storyteller and author Gcina Mhlophe; Saray Khumalo, the first black woman to summit Mount Everest; entrepreneur DJ Zinhle; the chief executive of Wonderbag, Sarah Collins; and founder and chief executive of Overcoming Racism, Matthew Kincaid. Amaphiko also focuses on storytelling as it believes social entrepreneurs can drive their brands with relatable and powerful stories.
“Red Bull is a brand that’s made itself famous through telling amazing stories. The idea was that, if we can create amazing content that originally made break dancing or skateboarding cool, why can’t we do that with social entrepreneurs?” asked Calvert.
“If we give them profiles and exposure on our channels and through external media, we can do that. We want to inspire a new generation.”
This year’s social entrepreneurs have innovations ranging from street lights that offer Wi-Fi, using nicotine-free tobacco to create renewable energy, maths and science educational programmes, and a programme that employs recovering drug addicts to make stoves and geysers.
The academy culminated in the Red Bull Amaphiko Festival, with Nasty C as one of the performers.