The idea was born when two different personal stories and career paths unexpectedly crossed. One came from an area of the world which is turbulent to say the least (from the Middle East, Jordan, to be precise) and the other from Switzerland. The first is both the heart and soul behind the project, while the latter is a manager with twenty years’ experience in the humanitarian field, specifically in Africa. As in most stories that start with two, a third person joined them: a scholar from Brazil, researcher at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Boston and former director of the Master in Humanitarian Logistics and Management (which he himself founded) at the ‘Università della Svizzera Italiana’ (www.usi.ch) for eight years. These three men are Mohammad Ismail (Jordan), Roberto Agosta (Switzerland) and Paulo Goncalves (Brazil). From the almost accidental meeting of these three brilliant minds in Switzerland, the project was born: a start-up to produce quality prosthetic legs at a low cost.
"There are about 32 million amputees in the world. Eighty per cent of these people live in developing countries and only five per cent of these have access to adequate prostheses. This means that there are currently more than twenty-five million people in the world that are in need of a prosthesis. The majority of amputees, around three out of four, need a prosthetic on their lower limbs," explains Roberto Agosta, co-founder and COO (chief operations officer) of SwissLeg (www.swissleg.org). These amputees can hardly afford the care they need, so they almost certainly do not have the means to buy a bionic prosthesis, and neither can they settle for a makeshift solution. Often, in fact, to cope with emergencies of this type, prostheses produced in developed countries are then sent to the patients in a standardised manner without being tailored to the needs of patients. This is where the innovation of SwissLeg comes in, by making low-cost and good quality prostheses directly on site. Indeed, the process takes place in the patient's home. "Our technology combines an innovative design, a faster production process and durable material," explains Agosta.
The idea comes from Mohammad Ismail, who has over twenty years’ experience in the construction of prostheses. Six years of this period were spent at the International Committee of the Red Cross and in war zones. He is trained as an orthopaedic technician and he specialised in the production of artificial legs. "The production of the prosthesis is similar to that of plastering a broken limb. The cast of the missing leg is created - usually below the knee – and a structurally robust artificial limb is then made from a mix of polymers. Once heated, this material becomes flexible and can be easily moulded. Once cooled, it is highly resistant to deformation and is still flexible enough to guarantee patient comfort. In general, after about three hours, the patient stands independently and is able to walk," states Roberto Agosta with certain pride.
To date, about a thousand people have received one or two SwissLeg limbs, mainly in war zones (Syria, North Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia). We would like to specify that the company is relatively young. It is not an NGO but a for-profit company with share capital whose stated goal is to be a social enterprise (the revenue must at least cover the costs, but the social impact is considerable, Editor’s note). Founded in 2012, it is now emerging from the start-up phase. The target market, so to speak, is NGOs active in certain areas of the world. Currently, SwissLeg works in Syria, Iraq and Jordan, either directly or through partners. In the case of Jordan, in Irbid, the orthopaedic centre there is run by Ismail. The company headquarters are in Lugano, Switzerland.
"In certain societies, losing a leg becomes a real tragedy," states Paulo Goncalves, CEO of SwissLeg. "Social exclusion is real, and depending on the severity of the amputation, one to three family members are ‘forced’ to take care of their relative with the resulting loss of income. With our limbs, life changes from morning to night. Walking is a fundamental right that no man, woman or child should be forced to give up," adds Professor Goncalves.
"The project," specifies Agosta, – "thus aims to respond to a clear need, by picking up on a business opportunity but at the same time assists people who have survived the tragic loss of a limb due to an accident or a war to regain the dignity of normal life."
There have been many tragic stories which finished with a happy ending over these two years. One of these is that of Yasmeen, a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in Nablus on the West Bank. When she was four, she was hit by a car and lost her right leg above the knee. As a teenager, she was going to receive a prosthesis in the United States thanks to a NGO program dedicated to aiding Palestinian children. She never went to the United States because a certain Mohammad Ismail came directly to her house. Thanks to a SwissLeg limb, one of the first prostheses produced in January 2012 managed to climb the highest African mountain: Kilimanjaro. (Generoso Chiaradonna, La Regione Ticino, Switzerland)