It was nine nightmarish months of her life. A shattered pelvis, a fractured arm and being confined to a wheelchair – all of that Portia Mavhungu could handle, but what almost broke her was her complete loss of independence. She couldn’t even go to the loo on her own.
“My mother and my grandmother had to lift me off the wheelchair and put me onto the toilet seat,” she tells us. The indignity of it all sent her spiralling into a deep depression and she counted her lucky stars when her body finally healed, and she was able to walk again.
But if nine months felt like an eternity to her, what about people who are permanently wheelchair-bound, she asked herself. Inspired by her own traumatic experience, Portia (31) invented the Para-Tube, an award-winning seat that fits onto any wheelchair, allowing people to relieve themselves without needing to be lifted off their chair.
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The eco-friendly seat comes with biodegradable disposable bags and has a centre part that can be pulled out and flipped up. Once flipped up, users can retrieve the bag from the flipped centre part, clip it onto the opening created from pulling out the centre and then relieve themselves.
“When you’re done you clip out the bag, close it and you draw the middle part of the seat back. Once you take the bag out and seal it, it traps the smell,” the Pretoria resident explains. It’s discreet and easy to use, but the thing she’s most proud of is just how comfortable the chair is. “It’s as if you’re sitting on a La-Z-Boy (recliner chair),” she says.
She wishes her invention had been available to her after her own devastating accident. In 2011 Portia was lucky to escape death when she fell from a high building in Durban. The details of the accident are too traumatic for her to rehash, she says.
Her injuries were so bad she had to spend two months in hospital. After she was released it took seven months before she could get her life back and start walking again. During this time, she had to go on antidepressants because she felt so low about her loss of independence. But there was one thing that kept her going during this dark time – an idea that had sparked in her brain. On paper one day she’d sketched a design for an invention she believed could put an end to the daily humiliation that millions of wheelchair-bound people are forced to endure.
Dreaming up the Para-Tube was one thing but getting it off the page and into development was something else entirely. Portia wasn’t able to find any local interest in producing the chair, so she turned to an American company.
“They wanted me to pay $6 000 (then about R56 000) for my prototype. I didn’t even earn a quarter of that,” says Portia, who was a corporate office technician for a telecommunications company at that time.
Yet she refused to give up on her dream. In 2014 she went to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, collected email addresses of ministerial personal assistants and emailed all of them, requesting funding. She was bowled over to receive a response from the department of science and technology a day later, referring her to the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), an agency that supports technological innovation.
“Eleven months after I sent my application to the TIA, I received R1 million funding.”
Through the TIA, Portia met engineers and scientists at Vaal University of Technology, who turned her initially complex design into a simple, low-tech product. The prototype was ready in 2016. Portia then partnered with lawyer Darushna Chellan (25) and together they started a company, PRD Logical Solutions, to produce the seat.
And this year it got a welcome boost in the form of funding to the tune of R5 million from the Industrial Development Corporation. They’re currently in the process of manufacturing 20 seats, which will be taken for field testing. A lot of scientific thought goes into the creation of each chair.
“Every seat can be customised according to the person’s usage, because your spine, weight and height matter – so all of that is taken into consideration,” Portia explains.
The existing seat of a wheelchair is removed and replaced permanently with The Para-Tube, which clips on. It’s so simple, Portia says, that clients can do it themselves. But before they can go into mass production, they need to get approval from the South African Bureau of Standards and the South African Medical Council. Once that happens, they’ll be able to start selling their product locally and internationally. Portia says they’re hoping to launch in January.
Her invention is all the more remarkable when you consider what was going on in her private life while she was trying to get it off the ground. During the initial stages of the development Portia lived with her mother, Anna, a domestic worker, on the property of her employer, Neelavathy Kolapen, in Lenasia.
Portia was very close to Neelavathy and regarded her as an honorary grandmother – she was the one who helped lift her to the loo when she was confined to a wheelchair. So, she was devastated in 2014 when Neelavathy died a few months after undergoing a hip-replacement operation.
In 2017 there was more tragedy when Portia’s mom lost her battle with cancer. While her mother was struggling with the disease, Portia quit her job to concentrate on developing the Para-Tube.
But as her quest to get it into development intensified, she had to make a lot of sacrifices. She even slept under a tree next to a police station on one occasion to be early for a meeting the next day. As soon as she received her grant things got easier on the financial front; she recently moved into a new two-bedroom home in Centurion after having lived with her girlfriend Tazlynn Adams (23) and her family for two years.
But she hasn’t forgotten how it feels to struggle and have people ridiculing her because of her invention. “I know the feeling of being laughed at,” she says. “People even called it the sh** toilet.” But now, after almost nine years of persistence, she’s having the last laugh.
Her innovative product has earned her multiple awards and may change many lives.