They have built a devicethat can help the blind to “see” – and they dream of making life simpler and easier for others too.
Jostled by a passing student as they were walking and chatting, Siphamandla Mqcina and Philanjalo Ndlovu were annoyed at first, then felt mildly embarrassed when they realised they’d been bumped by a blind student on campus at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT).
That chance encounter inspired the duo to invent a futuristic device which could change the way blind and visually impaired people navigate the world.
Called C4Me, the prototype looks like an oversize pair of virtual reality goggles, but for the wearer it’s like having a talking guide dog.
The device contains several sensors that guide the wearer by pinpointing their location and destination and provides audio instructions to guide them. It also warns them of obstacles, can identify banknotes and can be linked to cellphones to answer calls and read messages.
INNOVATIVE INVENTION: Siphamandla (21) and Philanjalo’s (26) innovative invention earned the pair a trip to Toronto, Canada, where they represented Mzansi at the Red Bull Basement University Global Workshop which showcases creations that make a difference in people’s lives.
Student inventors from universities from more than 20 countries were represented. “We didn’t build C4Me for us – we wanted to help blind people,” Phila says. “I often hear successful people say, ‘Never do something for the money, do it for passion. Money will eventually come.’ This has been proven.” As evidence of their dedication to serving people, when they started working on C4Me they didn’t even know about the Red Bull event.
They simply wanted to help. The pair forked out about R3 500 of their own money to build two C4Me prototypes from scratch, with some help from a 3D printer at Wits University’s Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein.
“We made sacrifices because we believed in this,” Siphamandla says. “We did it because we wanted to help blind students. For us this is personal, so we gave our time, our money, and our energy,” he told TimesLive.
HUMBLE BEGINNINGS: Growing up, life wasn’t easy. Phila, who’s from Mpumalanga, matriculated in 2013 but was unable to attend university as his unemployed mother couldn’t afford the fees. The following year he found work at a retailer but really wanted to further his studies, he tells us.
“Some people would tell me I was crazy for wanting to resign because having a job is a blessing in itself. I thought to myself, I should just start afresh and try to figure out how I can start studying.
He applied to the National StudentFinancial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) for funding, and in 2017 he enrolled for an IT course at TUT.
He moved to Soshanguve in Pretoria to be
closer to school, and it was there he met Siphamandla. They were both specialising in intelligent industrial systems, the study of the application of robots and robotic systems in industry. As a young boy Siphamandla, who grew up in Brits in North West, was fascinated with how things work and would spend hours taking apart old gadgets only to reassemble them.
“I knew from an early age this gave me the greatest satisfaction,” he says. It was an obsession, but he had no idea it could become a career until a friend suggested he look into IT. However, like Phila, his family couldn’t afford to send him to university. Siphamandla was orphaned at a young age and grew up with his grandmother. His faith, he says, has helped him.
“I was raised in a Christian home. When things got tough and I felt overwhelmed with how I was going to get into university, I prayed.
Honestly, with how everything has turned out for me, I’d say it’s all God’s doing.” With help from relatives he was able to scrape enough money together to go to TUT, but the daily four-hour round-trip commute by taxi between Brits and Pretoria was exhausting. “I was often late for classes. The long distance was really affecting my studies, but I had to push through,” Siphamandla says.
He applied to NSFAS for funding. After seven months of waiting for his application to be approved, he moved closer to TUT.
SHARING THE SAME DREAM: The pair met in their second year when they were in the same class and assigned a project to create a boom gate, Siphamandla recalls. “That was an exciting project – seeing something you created come alive,” he adds. They quickly hit it off as they saw a lot of themselves in each other. “I admired his commitment to our studies,” Phila says.
“He was so dedicated to projects and he was a hard worker. In our many conversations we had similar perspectives and aspirations.” When they found out about the Red Bull competition they scrambled into action.They built their prototypes in just three weeks and submitted a video explaining what it was just hours before entries closed.
“We couldn’t believe we were selected as finalists as we weren’t that experienced with creating videos that would be considered for such a big opportunity,” Siphamandla says. “We doubted ourselves. When we found out we won [the SA leg], we went crazy.
That was the best moment of my life.” Travelling to Canada and meeting like-minded inventors from more than 20 countries was an experience of a lifetime. “It was a dream to travel but not one I thought would come true, especially as I’m a student,” Phila says. They did not make it further than the top 10 but still see their accomplishment as a victory.
The guys intend to continue working on their device and are looking for sponsors and developers to help them manufacture and improve it. Having completed their studies last year, they also hope to find internships in the automation and programming world.
“We can’t wait to start working on other projects too, specifically robotics, and projects that will simplify people’s lives,” Phila says.“That’s where the future is.” In Toronto they were offered a six-month internship in Portugal, for which they’re trying to raise funds. “We come from townships, but we don’t have to have that ‘I can’t’ attitude,” Phila says.
“Never focus on your background or how you were raised. Do not limit yourself because you’ll create a generational pattern for your children too. “Sometimes you struggle through life but keep on dreaming big because you never know if your dreams will come true. This experience, for me, was proof that all I dream of is possible.”