UNDP, RUB leveraging on technology to support the visually impaired

On 26 November 2021 at 08:00

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Rwanda Union of the Blind (RUB) and Beno Holdings have launched a Smart White Cane (SWC) which is expected to transform the lives of the visually impaired by increasing their mobility independence. It is also expected to boost their confidence, dignity, and enable them to expand their social and economic activities.

The launch of the Smart White Cane (SWC) took place at Masaka Resource Center for the Blind, where 40 locally developed ‘smart canes’ devices were handed over to persons with visual impairment.

The high-tech white cane is the first of its kind to be made in Rwanda. It uses ultrasonic ranging technology to detect obstacles in a distance of 1.2 meters and alert the user through vibrations and sound. It has sensors, which can help the user to differentiate day and night. The GPS functionality allows to identify the geographic location of the user. This feature also facilitates to track the smart white cane in case it is lost. It has reflectors that inform other road users that the cane user needs special assistance.

The process to develop the SWC was innovative. The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Rwanda Accelerator Lab partnered with Beno Holdings, a Rwandan technology company, and RUB to design the SWC.

“The Accelerator Lab organized design thinking sessions with members of Rwanda Union of the Blind and the solution provider to deeply understand the challenges and learn how visually impaired persons are trying to address the mobility issue,’ said Christa Munezero Uwamahoro, head of experimentation at UNDP Accelerator Lab

‘Based on discussions with members, they began to experiment on what features could help persons with visual impairment to move freely and safely,” she added.

During the testing, members of RUB verified and previewed the SWC at key points in its development. Their insights focused on easy operability, practicality of use, being light to carry, and waterproof.

“As someone who has both visual and hearing impairments, the digital cane will help me a lot especially that it can vibrate. Additionally, I hope drivers will now stop for me when I am crossing a road. The ordinary stick was good, but it had limitations. It didn’t have lights or vibration to alert other road users of your presence or warn you of obstacles on the road respectively,” said Jean Marie Furaha, member of Rwanda Union of the blind.

Rwanda’s SWC joins a small but growing set of adaptive technologies for persons with disability in Africa. In Rwanda, the UNDP Accelerator Lab is helping to lead the way, through their approach of sensing, exploring and testing solutions, led by people closest to the problem. The solutions and the communities they aim to help deserve our attention and support.

“Persons with visual impairment face many challenges navigating a highly visual world. In Rwanda, we now have access to assistive technology to change that," said Maxwell Gomera, UNDP representative in Rwanda.

"Through this initiative UNDP wanted to first test if the technology can solve the challenge. The Smart stick we launched today is still a pilot project. We now want to engage our partners to see if we can bring down the cost of producing the smart cane – in order to take it to scale," he added.

The high-tech white canes have sensors, which can help the user to differentiate day and night. Photo New Times