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Ralph and Merel singing on stage in Caux header by Justin Makii

Dutch social entrepreneur goes out on a limb

Tuesday, 26. July 2016

Dutch social entrepreneur goes out on a limb

Merel Rumping from The Netherlands has had a passion for travelling from an early age. She gained her master’s degree in international relations in The Netherlands and studied political science in France before working in the Dutch embassy in Morocco. She has worked with street children and child soldiers in Colombia. There she became involved with a micro-financing agency, Banco Mundial de la Mujer. Through this she discovered the potential of social entrepreneurship.

Merel RumpingBack in The Netherlands she now works with ProPortion, which consults for NGOs and charities on how to create and sustain social enterprises, while also launching their own social enterprises in emerging economies. In May 2014 she has founded LegBank which aims to provide easy-to-fit prosthetic limbs for victims of landmines and other amputees in Colombia and elsewhere.

Addressing the Caux Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy (TIGE) conference on 7 July, she spoke with the kind of warmth, enthusiasm and care that TIGE encourages and fosters. A regular participant at Caux in recent years, Merel had a conversation about the need of prosthetics during the TIGE 2013 conference. An idea arose in her mind, based on the combination of her experience in the micro-financing agency, which shows the benefits of removing upfront costs, combined with her newfound knowledge of the scale of the issue.

Over 30 million people worldwide are in need of prosthetics but have no access to them—a statistic that shocked the Caux audience. Merel explained the concept of LegBank, whose mission is to ‘increase access to affordable, qualitative prostheses for low-income amputees in upcoming economies’.

Reaching out to the technical university in Delft, she gained volunteer support from six students who helped map and research the problem. They found that diabetes, motor accidents and landmines are the main reasons for amputations in Colombia. It is a country with one of the highest rates of landmine victims, following the world’s longest running civil war dating back to the mid-1960s and only recently ended.  

Forty per cent of amputations in Colombia are below the knee. The quality of the prosthetics is the key and current standards of the sockets are intricately linked to the production methods. The result is often as different as the people who create the socket. The barriers to access are time, quality and certification. Furthermore, victims are sometimes not covered by healthcare insurances at all or only covered for the actual prosthetic and not the travel to the centres, which can be long and costly.

Honing in on the issue Merel and her team needed a case study. They found a small village in Colombia where there were a staggering 300 landmine victims, many of them amputees in need of a prosthetic limb. Currently it can take up to two years to get one—a factor detrimental to most rural inhabitants’ livelihoods. So the aim became clear: bring the production closer to the rural areas, make the process quicker and produce better quality prosthetics.

Ralph Bijvoet In cooperation with Strathclyde University, Glasgow, the team created the first prototype of the Majicast socket production unit in January 2015. Majicast, invented by Dr Arjan Buis and developed by design agency Reggs, is a device that reduces production time to create a bespoke, comfortable socket almost immediately. It requires less skills to use, and produces a consistently higher quality product. Following successful production of Majicast prosthetics, they mapped where to provide orthopaedic services to the areas that are most in need.

In order to be able to expand the operation, they now needed capital investment. Merel pitched LegBank to Bill Gates; however it was Google who decided to invest in this innovative solution. With an investment of $1 million from Google, the project was off to a flying start.

So what now? The latest version of the Majicast is being finalised and the aim is to provide orthopaedic services in three rural areas, possibly by building at least an orthopaedic centre, with the first one opening its doors in May 2017.

Merel’s presentation in Caux was of an idea that is simple in concept but powerful in impact, leaving the audience aware that this was a phenomenally exciting project.

After speaking about LegBank, Merel Rumping sang an enchanting music concert of Portuguese Fado music with her guitarist Ralph Bijvoet who, with guitarist Antonio Carlos Costa, form the ensemble group Palpita. They gained a standing ovation at the end, both for her singing and her story.

Report by Sophia Schwer

Photos by Justine Makii