John Amanam's adventure into black-skinned prosthetics was not planned. But today, he has clients in over 60 countries, offering aesthetic and practical solutions for Black amputees worldwide.
By Gabriella Opara, bird story agency
John Amanam hadn't planned on becoming a prosthetist. With a Fine and Industrial Arts degree, he dreamed of becoming a world-renowned sculptor. However, an accident in the family changed that trajectory – and launched a career.
"In 2018, my younger brother had an accident that severed some of his fingers. He felt so bad and wondered how he'd get by without them. At 21, he had so much ahead for him. I couldn't sit by and do nothing. I started researching on how prosthetics are made, so I could help him. I was driven to help him overcome the stigma of being an amputee and also to help him become himself again," said Amanam.
Amanam's determination to help his brother initially received pushback from medical practitioners.
"My brother's doctors embarrassed me several times whenever I asked questions. One told me to leave his office when I suggested making prosthetics, trying to get answers for my research. They all told me I knew nothing about creating artificial limbs for amputees because I was a sculptor," he added.
Though intended to be discouraging, the remarks had the opposite effect. Amanam doubled his efforts and widened his research, determined to come up with a solution.
After several failed attempts, he produced his first prosthetic in 2019, which he gave to his brother.
"It was all about my brother at the time. I didn't know I'd be the first to create hyper-realistic skin for black people. I was just doing it for my brother," he explained.
But after posting his early achievements on social media, Amanam quickly realised that what he had created could become a solution for a huge number of under-served African amputees. Inundated by requests, he founded a company, Immortal Cosmetics.
He was the first person in Nigeria to create prosthetics for black skin, and by 2021 had secured a patent for his creation.
Sandra (not her real name) was one of those who reached out to Immortal Cosmetics.
Born with a congenital disability, she had spent over thirty years searching for affordable prosthetics. Her hopes for a prosthetic that would match her skin colour remained a dream until she came across Immortal Cosmetics.
"The first time I saw black-skin prosthetics, I remember thinking it had to be a scam because it was so strange. I had never seen artificial limbs in my skin colour. I looked at the pictures for a long time, and was fascinated by how real they looked," she said.
She finally reached out to Amanam when she realised his company was close to her home in Uyo, Akwa Ibom, Nigeria. She needed an ear, and Amanam did an excellent job creating one that fits perfectly.
"It'd take an observant and inquisitive person to know that my right ear is attached," she said.
Although getting her custom-made prosthetics was more affordable than she had expected, she still had to save up for a year before she could pay for the prosthetic created by Immortal Cosmetics.
"It's the greatest thing I've ever saved up for. It's worth it because now I don't need to cover half of my face with my hair. I feel confident every day. I look forward to going out and about. It might seem like a little thing, but it has changed everything for me."
Despite his desire to make his black-skin prosthetics affordable, factors like importation and other production costs make hyper-realistic prosthetics costly.
“The price for each prosthetic varies according to the client's needs and fittings. The importation of materials determines the rates we can charge for. Currently, the lowest cost is about N200,000 (US$430),” Amanam explained.
In order to cater for those who can't afford the prosthetics, Amanam decided to launch a pro bono arm of Immortal Cosmetics: Ubokobong Donations.
For Ubokobong, an Efik word which means 'hand of God', monetary donations are made by donors who wish to help people with disabilities.
Udeh Peace Nkeoma was one of the beneficiaries of Ubokobong Donations in 2022.
"I'd been following Immortal Cosmetics on social media since 2019. I believe I'm one of the first clients that reached out to them. But, I quickly realised getting the flesh cover for my right hand cost more than I could afford," Nkeoma said.
Despite the setback, Nkeoma began recommending Immortal Cosmetics to people who needed it. She saw it as her way of contributing to her community.
"For me, it was more like 'even if I can't afford this, there's someone out there who can but is unaware that something like this exists'. I wanted them to know that they didn't have to go through the social stigma I'd been experiencing for years. Here was a perfect solution, in our skin colour. Have you ever seen prosthetics in black skin? I hadn't until Immortal Cosmetics came along," she said.
For four years, Nkeoma kept tabs on the company's development and creation of prosthetics while doing all she could to raise money for the prosthetics she desired. Referring Immortal Cosmetics became something Nkeoma did regularly. Ultimately, it got the company's attention.
In September 2022, Immortal Cosmetics' staff contacted her, informing her she'd been selected as a beneficiary of Ubokobong Donations.
Two months later, Nkeoma finally had the hyper-realistic flesh-cover hand she'd longed after for years.
"I got it for free. The only part of my money that went into it was travel expenses because I live in Lagos. After so many years of wanting this hand, I can't believe I finally have them. The best part is nobody can tell they're artificial, and they fit like a glove," she said.
John Amanam's passion for helping people with disabilities goes beyond empathy. He's also determined to ensure black representation in medicine.
"So far that I know, I'm still the only one doing prosthetics for black skin. If we have more people like myself or Chidiebere Ibe, the black-skin medical illustrator, doing more about black representation in medicine, then there will be inclusion for all," Amanam said.
Amanam has also explored other applications for his innovation. That has included joining the Unique Classic Concept (Uniccon) Group in their development of Nigeria's first humanoid robot, Omeife.
Amanam and his staff, which includes twenty per cent of people with disabilities, created the hyper-realistic flesh cover for the humanoid robot in 2022.
Still passionate about sculpture, Amanam plans to host an art exhibition in Immortal Cosmetics' newly opened office in Lagos, Nigeria, later this year.
"This will show that art, science and tech can merge. Beyond my sculptures, I will also be unveiling advancement to our prosthetics," said Amanam.
bird story agency