Young entrepreneur Nkululeko Tunzi creates innovative walking aid for blind people

Nkululeko Tunzi. Picture: Mpumelelo Macu
Nkululeko Tunzi. Picture: Mpumelelo Macu

With an unquenchable curiosity and a knack for creating solutions, Tunzi is exploring new territories and changing lives, using technology

Nkululeko Tunzi is an aspiring young entrepreneur whose innovations blaze trails and whose global vision seems to set him apart from his peers.

The computer science graduate from the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) has invented an innovative walking aid that helps blind people navigate traffic.

The product, called Bulatsela, uses cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning features to interpret surroundings.

“It helps detect objects and obstacles, creates a path and provides feedback to the blind person,” Tunzi said during an interview with City Press at Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct, downtown Johannesburg, where he works from the Red Bull Basement premises.

Born in Dube, Soweto, and schooled at the nearby Ikwezi Primary School, Tunzi matriculated at Daliwonga Secondary School before heading off to TUT’s Soshanguve Campus.

He aspired to be a veterinary surgeon, but was equally curious about everything else. It is that curiosity he credits for being where he is now.

“My siblings are all in different fields; my father is a paramedic and my mother is in finance. I wanted to be a vet because I love animals and still do, but I was also always curious about everything around me,” he says.

Going to varsity, Tunzi planned on enrolling for a qualification in information technology (IT), but on the day of registration the long queues made him opt for the less crowded line of those registering for a diploma in computer systems.

“There were a lot of people there and my strategy was that I wanted special attention at school and to develop a relationship with the teacher. If I had registered for IT I would not have got that,” he says.

He said studying computer systems also introduced him to a side of himself he was not aware of.

“There was an element of self-discovery because I discovered that I had always been interested in experimenting, even when I was interested in being a vet.”

In the last year of studies he managed to bag an internship at Tshimologong, Wits University’s digital incubation and development hub, and after graduating he returned to the same centre.

Speaking about Bulatsela, Tunzi said the idea came about after observing a blind elderly woman waiting to cross a street.

“I was in a bus and I saw a woman standing at the traffic light and she stood there for a while. The traffic light turned green, turned red and green again, and she did not cross the street. That’s when I thought that there must be a way [to help people in her position] and started with my research and looked at existing options.”

When an opportunity from energy drink giant Red Bull came calling for people to submit applications for social innovations for an advanced incubation programme, Tunzi knew his idea would be relevant.

“I was not that confident that Red Bull would choose the idea and did not have high expectations to get into the programme, and I was very happy when I was accepted. Bulatsela will contribute to [social innovation],” he says.

Tunzi says the ultimate goal for his innovation is to see Bulatsela being widely used by blind people, as well as being part of the fourth industrial revolution.

“I am confident that we are not solving a problem for South Africa, but a problem for the whole world and that is the ultimate goal. The product must eventually plug into the world of smart cities because that is where the world is heading to,” he says

Tunzi says the strength and biggest competitive edge of his innovation is in the use of AI to interpret the surroundings for the user.

“The current products in the market are either single- or double-sensored, while others [just give out] vibrations according to distance. Bulatsela will tell you where an object is and what the object is,” he says.

Bulatsela is fitted with all the bells and whistles of a modern smart device, including various sensors and Bluetooth, which is used for listening to voice feedback.

Having developed the current prototype to be conveniently smaller and smarter than his initial one, Tunzi is well on his way to commercialising the product.

He is adamant that not only the product, but his company, Olround Tech, will be a force to be reckoned with in the near future.

“Under Olround Tech I do diverse innovations, training and consultations for clients who want to develop their products, as well as 3-D printing. I also do pilot projects for schools.” he says.

Tunzi also runs a not-for-profit organisation called Ghetto Nerds, which he uses to visit schools to teach pupils about computer programming and electronics.


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