Innovating swabs at Kenyatta University


"Kenya was importing swabs from abroad and I felt there was need to substitute that," writes student Simon Ndirangu.

My name is Simon Karuga Ndirangu. I was born and raised in Mung’etho village, located in Kiriita ward, Ndaragwa Constituency in Nyandarua County. I am now 28. 

I started my education at Mung’etho Primary School where I scored 342 marks. Thereafter, I pursued my secondary education at Kirimara High School.

I joined Kenyatta University (KU) in 2013 to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in Biotechnology at the School of Pure and Applied Sciences. The department is chaired by Professor Steven Runo, an associate Professor in Molecular Biology. Prof Runo is also my mentor.

My journey to innovation started with the science congresses in high schools. This took place every second term of the academic year. Through the district education programme set by the government, these science congresses piqued my interest in research and development. 

They also stirred my interest in coming up with innovative ways to solve problems.

KU has provided me with a nurturing environment to pursue interests beyond academics. This has transformed me into a practical solution provider by inspiring me to keep thinking outside the box. I have found the atmosphere here to be exceptional because universities are generally viewed as ivory towers and factories for thinkers only.

In my view, universities should be factories that allow graduates to provide solutions for the most pressing of human challenges. At Kenyatta University, I embarked on the same journey of innovation that I had started in secondary school.

During my Third Year of studies, I proposed a project concerning incorporation of a genetically modified micro-organism that would have the ability to digest nicotine tar that causes cancer among smokers.

I later dropped the project due to lack of experience in running such an initiative. But the experience was mind-blowing because all the tools I needed were provided. The environment and tutelage to think big and be a change-maker was provided at KU. 

When the university closed in mid-March this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I sat at home watching as the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mr Mutahi Kagwe, made a national call for innovative persons to come up with solutions to help address the shortage of testing kits. 

One of the items crucial to coronavirus testing was a Nasopharyngeal Swab for collecting samples of nasal secretions from the back of the nose and throat.

Kenya was importing swabs from abroad and I felt there was a need for import substitution.


I proposed my idea of using 3D printed specialised swabs. The proposal was recommended to the office of Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Outreach (RIO) by my supervisor, Professor Steven Runo. 

The proposal was accepted and recommended to Vice-Chancellor of Kenyatta University Professor Paul Wainaina. He funded the project with seed capital worth S200,000 and gave me access to the Chandaria Business Innovation and Incubation Centre.

The university provided me with three sets of 3D printers, which I used to convert my idea into prototypes that could be used to test for coronavirus as well as other 3D printed products. 

The incubation centre also helped me to secure a patent for swabs through the intellectual property management office and Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI). 

Currently, the university is assisting me in standardisation of my prototypes through the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs). We are also working with the Pharmacy and Poisons Board of Kenya to register this essential medical device and authorise the clinical validation studies.

swab 2

Universities are supposed to help students build meaningful and productive lives for themselves, their families and the society. 

KU has provided me with the conducive learning environment and drive to be the best of myself and to pursue my interest of being an innovator. It has moulded me to develop strong qualities of character and mind to achieve this and the capacity to think independently.

The writer is a fourth year student pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Biotechnology at Kenyatta University