2021 Mastercard Foundation Scholarship Recipient: Cecil Chikezie, MEng ’22 (BioE)
The Mastercard Foundation Scholarship supports future leaders in Africa. In this article, MEng student and scholarship recipient, Cecil Chikezie, speaks about what it means to be a MasterCard Foundation Scholar and his long term bio-engineering goals of supporting the financial stability and respiratory health of Kenyan communities.
How did your personal background lead you to your area of study?
While pursuing my undergraduate degree in Kenya, I decided to focus on using my mechanical engineering skills to alleviate environmental and respiratory health issues. This was after realizing that 14,300 Kenyans die annually from respiratory health conditions which can be traced back to indoor air pollution. Majorly affected was the 71% of low-income urban households inhaling smoke and contracting respiratory tract diseases due to the use of wood fuels. As a result, I founded Eco Makaa, a company that sustainably improves the community’s respiratory health by producing clean, smokeless alternatives to wood fuel in the form of briquettes made from carbonized agricultural waste. Through Eco Makaa, we have already sold 15 tons of briquettes, impacted 1,193 households, employed 21 youth and saved 123 trees that would have been used to produce charcoal. Consequently, the company has been featured on media such as CNBC Africa, The Business Daily and KTN News.
While my interest in promoting health was stirred up through Eco Makaa, it was bolstered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Kenya experienced a large deficit in the number of ventilators required for patients in critical condition. The high cost of the ventilators in the global market and deficient expertise to manufacture locally-made, low-cost ventilators made the pandemic more dire.
I sought to expand my impact in the health sector from a community level to a continental one. In my studies for a Master of Engineering in Bioengineering at UC Berkeley, I aim to focus my research on Biomaterials and Biomedical devices and their modification for use in resource-poor areas in Africa such as slums and far-flung inaccessible regions. When I graduate, I will be equipped with the required skills to ameliorate inefficient healthcare systems.
What does it personally mean to you to be a Mastercard Foundation scholar?
The Mastercard Foundation Scholarship Program focuses on developing African leaders who are transformative, encouraging them to be active contributors in their communities. The program has given me an opportunity to pursue my academic goals with the aim of advancing Africa’s economy. I will gain technical skills to be used for the promotion of the general population’s health, thereby catalyzing communal prosperity.
I first learned of the Mastercard Foundation Scholarship Program through online research. I had been looking for scholarships to pursue my studies abroad and, upon finding out about it, applied to UC Berkeley, which is one of the partner institutions providing the scholarship. I chose UC Berkeley because of the high level of faculty engagement, resources, and opportunities that the institution provides.
I was really excited to receive the news of my selection as a scholar! I had just woken up and immediately opened my email to receive the news from Meron Semedar, Tami Driver and Martha Saveedra, who facilitate the program here at UC Berkeley. You can imagine the joy that not only I, but my family and community felt. It served as a beacon of hope and prosperity for us all.
One of the eligibility criteria for the scholarship is “Having expressed the desire and intention to return to your home country after completing your studies.” How do you envision your Berkeley experience and the MEng degree supporting this?
My vision is that in the next twenty years, Kenya will be able to develop biomedical devices for locally prominent diseases and conditions, through the development of technical expertise in design and fabrication.
By undertaking graduate courses in bioengineering at UC Berkeley, I will be equipped with the necessary skills to ameliorate the healthcare system in Kenya by mitigating the technical inefficiencies I and other people around me have experienced. This includes developing devices that are tailor-made for resource-poor areas, which would bolster healthcare inclusion by reducing the disparity caused by financial capacity, and increasing access. The UC Berkeley community is also a phenomenal resource I will tap into.
“By interacting and sharing ideas with students and faculty here, I will develop a more global view which is integral in coming up with solutions to current problems in Kenya, and in Africa as a whole.”
What are your professional goals?
I aim to gain knowledge and opportunities while at UC Berkeley. This will be possible through coursework such as the MEng capstone project, where I will work with students and supervisors to develop specialized medical devices. Furthermore, I aim to take advantage of the various incubators and accelerators present in the Fung ecosystem in order to innovate and grow various start-ups.
In the long term, I plan to return to Kenya. My return to Kenya is fueled by the fact that more than 10,000 Kenyans travel abroad annually to receive healthcare, spending about $100 million. This is as a result of a lack of specialized medical equipment, resulting in long waiting periods and increased costs. Upon returning, I will support hospitals with modern medical devices, thereby reducing medical costs for Kenyans.
Additionally, in Kenya, the ratio of doctors to patients is 1:16000. This is in contrast to the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 1:1000. Therefore, many Kenyans, especially those in rural areas, are not able to receive specialized healthcare. I plan to cross-cut technology and healthcare in order to provide telemedicine services from satellite clinics. Individuals in remote areas will receive consultations through online video services, and in cases requiring medical operations they can then be referred to hospitals equipped with our quality devices.
What are some of your hobbies and passions?
I have a passion for entrepreneurship. I aim to use my knowledge to begin and run multiple successful companies that would create job opportunities and improve economies while providing value. Therefore, graduate school proved a good opportunity to learn from experienced professors and professionals who could give guidance on the best practices and opportunities.
On a lighter note, I am interested in the arts, especially singing. I have written and performed a few songs and this acts as my pastime, taking the edge off of the rigors of life. I look forward to exploring it as well during my time here at Berkeley.
Is there something you are currently working on that you would like to share?
Currently, I am working with fellow students on a start-up called EcoWaks. It addresses trade payment delays that I encountered while running my company, Eco Makaa, back in Kenya. EcoWaks provides early trade payment to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), providing services/goods on credit to larger companies.
SMEs are the main suppliers of essential goods to various industries, and are subject to trade credit systems. The deficit in cash flow inhibits their efficient operation and growth. 40% of SMEs in developing countries have unmet financial need yearly. This is exacerbated in Africa, which has a trade finance gap of $81 billion USD. We aim to release the cash flow for the suppliers, while providing the procuring companies with benefits such as dynamic discounting.
In 2015, I formed a community-based club in Kenya. The club recruited 6 volunteers to teach Information Technology and coding to 47 underprivileged pupils in the Kibera slum of Nairobi. I also partnered with Moringa School, a coding institution, to provide free coding lessons to the pupils by sending volunteers who used government-sponsored computers to teach.
Connect with Cecil Chikezie
Edited by Danielle Vasquez and Ella Rochelle-Lawton