Kenyan alumnus Chelmis MuthoniI’d urge my fellow innovators to be both patient and resilient... (this) ensures that you’re able to explore other ways when your plans don’t pan out."

Chelmis Muthoni is a Kenyan electronics engineer and embedded systems developer. She is COO of Sign-IO, a smart glove and app which translates speech to sign language and was a finalist in the Africa Prize 2019.

We asked Chelmis about Sign-IO, the impact of the Africa Prize, and her experience of the 2019 GGCS Summit, where she spoke last month:


Can you briefly describe your innovation and tell us who inspired you to create it?

Sign-IO is an assistive wearable technology consisting of a pair of smart gloves that capture sign language gestures and a companion mobile application that translates the sign language gestures to speech.

Roy Allela, Sign-IO co-founder has a deaf niece and the challenges he experienced in communicating with her were the motivation behind the innovation. He realised that she shares this challenge with around 466 million people in the world (according to the World Health Organization), who communicate using sign language.

Roy Allela, CEO of Sign-IO


What are the main lessons you learned through the Africa Prize training?

The business training and mentorship we received through the Africa Prize was crucial. We were able to refine our business model, lower our cost of production and come up with a viable scaling strategy. It also helped us to identify the gaps in our business operations, such as marketing and team diversity.


What impact has the Africa prize had on you and your business?

We were able to establish very valuable connections to various organisations that cater for the needs of people with speech and hearing impairments. This has been very beneficial as they are integral to our business model and in the process saved us on customer acquisition costs.

We also received good publicity through their media partners on international platforms, such as The Guardian. This exposure has led to numerous connections from across the world and we are leveraging this to scale.


What stage are you at now?

Sign-IO gloves and appWe are in our final product iteration that involves slight product refinements, such as power consumption. When this is complete, we will conduct the last pilot phase and start commercialising.

Our plan for commercialisation is both to work with special-needs organisations that will buy the technology on behalf of sign language users, as well as to sell directly to end users. To ensure the technology reaches users as quickly as possible, we will set up a payment instalment plan.



What has been the most challenging thing for Sign-IO until now?

When starting this journey, we knew that developing such a solution would be possible. What we did not anticipate was the complexity that arises from the many sign language variations. We had to decide on whether to factor in all the variations or give the users the flexibility to customise or build their own language from scratch.

Our users were more receptive to the latter and so this is what we chose to work with, it also saves us the development time and resources that we would have incurred.


You recently spoke at the 2019 Global Grand Challenges Summit (GGCS) in London, what can you tell us about the experience?

The GGCS was the greatest experience I’d ever had as an engineer. One of the statements that really stood out was that it is important “to develop and add to our personal networks in people as well as technology”.

As a speaker, GGCS gave me an opportunity to share, with other engineers, the work we’re doing at Sign-IO and its impact on the sign language users’ community, not only in Kenya but potentially around the whole world.

I drew a lot of inspiration from the student collaborations and learnt a lot from the speakers and especially the panel discussions that took place. The networking sessions allowed me to grow my network, not only as an entrepreneur but also as an engineer.


What tips for success would you give to your fellow innovators and researchers?

Co-founders Chelmis and RoyFirst, I’d urge my fellow innovators to be both patient and resilient. It is common not to get the results we wish to get at the expected time and when this happens, it pays to be patient. Coupling patience with resilience ensures that you’re able to explore other ways when your plans don’t pan out.

Finally, and most importantly, is to have both mentors and mentees. Mentors to guide you and mentees so you can pass on the knowledge from your own experiences.


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