Open Insulin Project in Africa : from local communities to the lab

4 min read

Contact With the Open Insulin Project

In September 2017, I gave a talk at the Biosummit (organised by MIT-Medialab) on the topic : Biohacking in Africa : a tool for justice, empowerment and development. During the event, I meet many people involved in the Open Insulin project ; but I have a great conversation with one of them : Winnie Poncelet. At the end of the meeting, he invited me at the Openvillage Festival, organised in November in Brussels by Edgeryders. During the festival, Winnie Poncelet and Anthony Di Franco present the Open Insulin project in Belgium and U.S. contexts.


Winnie & Anthony made a very nice and interesting presentation. But I was wondering about the relevance of their actions in their contexts ; knowing that the health policy and insurance are well organised and can cover insulin needs of the majority of the patients. Why they don’t run such project in poorer regions of the world where the health policy doesn’t take care of insulin matter ? Since they are aware of this reality, as mentioned in the website : « there is no generic insulin available on the market despite great demand in poorer communities and regions of the world. As a result, many go without insulin and suffer complications including blindness, cardiovascular disease, amputations, nerve and kidney damage, and even death .» This quote described the true reality of many African countries, where many families (like mine) have lost people, have people with amputations or people who need dialysis every week due to diabetes.
The Winnie & Anthony answer’s to my question was very simple ; there is no local actors excited to run the project in African context. In return, they asked me why as a biohacker, I cannot take the lead of the project in Cameroon ? Considering the beauty and the relevance of the project in my country and Africa, I decided to overcome this challenge by getting involved in, socially and technically.

Conduct of the Project in Cameroon
Even if one of the core principles in biology research is reproducibility, I don’t want to copy-paste what happens in the U.S. and Belgium, without any consideration of the Cameroonian reality. For this reason, in the short time I suggest running a two-fold research : social and experimental. The social part of the research will help us to describe and better understand the context related to insulin, in terms of : health care, patients’ needs, the views of medical doctors and pharmacists. The experimental part of the research concerns synthetic biology in the lab. The two parts of the research can be run during the same period or not ; and results of the research will be published in two different papers : one in public health and the other one in synthetic biology.
In the midterms, results of the research will help us to frame strategies to better educate and take care of local populations, about insulin and diseases related. In the long term, we will spray results of this experience, everywhere in Africa.

The Research Team
After my engagement to run the project in Cameroon, I emailed some friends, colleagues and former biochemistry classmate. All of them was very excited to join the project. Then we build the team composed of :

  • 01 Professor of Biochemistry (PhD) from Douala University ;
  • 01 Medical doctor from Yaoundé, taking care of many diabetic patients ;
  • 02 Master students from the University of Yaoundé I : one in social science, the other one in molecular biology.
  • 01 diabetes type I patient, who will be considered as a researcher not like the subject of research.

I will put all my energy and my triple background (biochemistry, sciences of education, social sciences), to coordinate the research team ; and I will be happy to host the team inside the Mboalab (Yaoundé, Cameroun).

In conclusion, all of us are very excited to bring our input in this beautiful project.

About the Mboalab:

The Mboalab is a Research Center on Open Science (Citizen sciences, Open, DIY, Hacking, Making…) based in Yaoundé (Cameroon), aimed to provide a better life to local populations through research. The Mboalab has been thought and designed in December 2015 in one Fablab in Quebec city, but the official opening will be in December 2017. In many native Cameroonian languages, Mboa means : new, unique or home.