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The Making Of A Radically Simple Hospital Bed For Malawi

Good design doesn’t always mean higher tech. In Malawi’s hospitals, it means simplicity–which comes with its own design challenges.

If you walk into the children’s ward in a hospital in the African country of Malawi, there’s a good chance the metal bed frames will be bent out of shape. That’s because when large families come to visit their children in the hospital, everyone piles on the sides of the bed, and over time the collective weight bent the poor-quality bed frames out of shape.

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[Photo: Super Local]

This was one of the details that the Dutch design studio Super Local discovered when they were commissioned to create a line of high-quality, durable hospital furniture by the Malawi social enterprise Sakaramenta.

Peter Meijer, who founded Sakaramenta in 2007 to manufacture Dutch-designed, locally made products in Malawi, learned that because Malawi is a landlocked country, importing good-quality hospital equipment is very expensive. As a result, hospitals there tend to buy poorly made furniture from India and China so they can afford the astronomical shipping costs. But when hospital beds and rolling stretchers start to fall apart, there are no spare parts, supplies, or local know-how to repair them. On the opposite end of the spectrum, equipment from Europe or the U.S., which is often donated and comes without a warranty, tended to be too high-tech, with fancy levers to allow medical staff to adjust it. When that equipment eventually broke, it was equally difficult to fix.

[Photo: Super Local]

“The first thing that breaks are the wheels,” says Pim van Baarsen, one of Super Local’s founders. “Behind every hospital there’s this big scrap yard with all the old products. It’s really terrible to see. You see a lot of good-looking products, but because the wheels are broken or there’s something small that’s broken, the products aren’t useful anymore.”

Van Baarsen and his partner Luc van Hoeckel worked with five different hospitals to design a solution to this problem, talking to nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, and surgeons to learn about what they wanted out of their equipment. The biggest theme? They wanted simple, durable furniture that wasn’t too complicated. For instance, having adjustable hospital beds wasn’t a priority for them–enabling Super Local to create a far simpler design.

[Photo: Super Local]

It was vital that the furniture they designed was made from good-quality materials that wouldn’t break down so fast. They knew they needed stainless steel–especially for furniture that would be used in surgery–but the designers found that the material made in Malawi was poor quality. As a result, the designers had to import the bulk of the stainless steel they needed, as well as well-made caster wheels–heavy-duty rotating wheels, like those you’d find on a task chair–that wouldn’t break after a small amount of use. But the rest of the materials, like steel pipes, steel sheets, and paint were purchased locally in the country, making Sakaramenta’s production process more affordable.

Ultimately, Super Local designed the Care Collection, including hospital beds, room dividers, drip stands, side tables, laundry carts, and tables, trolleys, and stools for use during surgery. The collection is very simple, but with careful attention paid to its simplest details, like ensuring that the bed won’t bend when people sit on it, that wheels won’t break after a single use, or that any part that breaks will be simple to repair.

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Meijer says that Sakaramenta is busy producing the furniture and has already sold the line to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, the country’s largest hospital. The company, which employs between 25 and 30 people in Malawi, also repairs the furniture when it does break. Super Local also designed Sakaramenta’s line of playground equipment in 2012, and the company sells bicycle ambulances that hook onto the back of a bike and can be used to take sick or injured people to local medical centers.

Sometimes the best design is the simplest–the furniture’s greatest strength is that it is exactly what the hospital staff and medical professionals in Malawi asked for, without any extra flashiness or unhelpful technology.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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