Mohamed Dhaouafi was training to be an engineer in Tunisia when a story about a fellow student’s 12-year-old cousin put him on a path toward prosthetics. The girl was born without arms, but her parents couldn’t afford to buy her artificial replacements. They had decided to wait until their daughter turned 20 before considering prostheses. Dhaouafi scrapped the online medical marketplace he was building for a university competition and submitted a new entry instead: a mechanical hand.

It might have ended there had he left for an internship in Canada as planned when he graduated in 2017. But once aware of the issue, Dhaouafi started noticing limb differences all around him. Of some 30–40 million amputees in developing countries, only 5% have access to prosthetics, he learned. For children especially, an absent limb can lead to social stigmatization and school absenteeism. Dozens of people Dhaouafi interviewed told him they either couldn’t afford prostheses or stopped using ungainly models after just a couple of months. Making a better, more affordable alternative “became my passion, my purpose,” he says, “For someone who’s lost a hand, it’s just miserable. Often, it’s harder to use the prosthetic than having nothing at all.”

In November 2018, he founded Cure Bionics—a company born from attempts to refine the prototype he’d built at university—with a cash loan from his father. Two years on, it’s set to launch Dhaouafi’s 3–D printed, in-house engineered bionic hands on the Tunisian market. Broader distribution in Africa and the Middle East is slated to follow in 2021. Acclaim has come from even further afield—this year MIT Technology Review included Dhaouafi in its annual list of inventors under 35, and in 2019 he was chosen as an Obama Foundation leader for Africa.

Mohamed Dhaouafi (Zied Ben Romdhane—Magnum Photos)
Mohamed Dhaouafi
Zied Ben Romdhane—Magnum Photos

Designed to be sleek and user friendly, Cure Bionics’ prostheses cost about a quarter of the market average, at around $2,500. AI sensors help them adapt to a patient as their body grows and changes—meaning costly replacements are required less frequently. And solar charging allows the prostheses to function in communities where electricity is intermittent.

A therapeutic tool Dhaouafi is developing in parallel was inspired by his meeting with an eight-year-old, who had lost an arm and a leg after suffering a serious electric shock. The boy’s struggles with traditional physiotherapy exercises, like opening an imaginary jar, were only adding to his trauma. Instead, Dhaouafi plans to use VR games to help children and teenagers embrace their new prostheses and feel like they have “superpowers”—a Beta version based on Spiderman is already proving a hit with testers.

Dhaouafi says he wants Tunisian society to be inspired by people with limb differences, rather than pitying them. That led to him integrating design tweaks recommended by teenaged users—like changeable facades to match an outfit. Prostheses should not be “an ugly metal thing they try to hide,” he says, but “tools for positive differentiation.”

Tunisia’s nascent start-up scene has proven a challenge to navigate: there are often supply bottlenecks, and Dhaouafi has to travel twice per week to the capital to complete administrative tasks. Still, it’s one he hopes other entrepreneurs will embrace. The audacity and drive needed to build a company from scratch are similar to the spirit of mass protests that brought democracy to Tunisia in 2011, Dhaouafi says: “If we want the country to be a better one, an innovative country, we have to start things ourselves.”

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