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African Health Solutions May Be in Unexpected Places

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Since the U.N. released its “World Population Prospects” report last year, there has been a lot of talk about the incredible projected population growth of Africa. According to much research, by about 2030 and beyond, Africa will have the largest working population in the world. In fact, 40 percent of the working population globally will be based in or from Africa.

Nnamdi Oranye: Author - Disrupting Africa: The Rise & Rise of African Innovation
Nnamdi Oranye: Author – Disrupting Africa: The Rise & Rise of African Innovation

That’s only about 15 years away. Even if you look at the numbers more conservatively, we’re still only about 20 or so years away from this. So we have an opportunity here. We really are poised on something significant. To take advantage of this opportunity, we have to focus on the key industries that will prepare this gigantic workforce positively. If this workforce is not prepared, Africa will become a liability, not an asset, to the globe. These basic industries include food, basic infrastructure, and so on. But the one I want to focus on in particular is the health industry.

Recently, I was chairing at the Healthcare Innovation Summit and noticed certain themes constantly popping up. These included interoperability, collaboration, private partnerships, the role of government, and innovation in general. Why these got my interest was because they’re the same ideas I see regularly popping up in the telecoms and digital payments space. I also noticed there was a lot of talk about robotics and other hi-tech innovations, but realised that those sorts of innovations aren’t really relevant for the majority of Africans yet. We need innovation that’s far simpler and much more suited to our own context.

When I was doing research for my book, Disrupting Africa: The Rise and Rise of Innovation, I began to see clearly just how much cross-pollination between innovations in many different industries can actually work together. When I started looking into what’s happening in the health sector, I was amazed by what’s really going on. Here are some examples worth considering.
For example, the Vula app, developed by Dr William Mapham, helps health workers in rural areas send data and photos of cataracts to a specialist in a nearby city who diagnoses the problem, suggests the solution, and books appropriate surgery. People living in remote areas don’t need to go through all the costs of driving to the city several times for a check-up, diagnosis, surgery, and whatever else, but only go once for the 20-minute surgery.

That’s an African solution to an African problem that works in rural Africa.
Sproxil is another example, from Ghanaian, Ashifi Gogo. It has innovated with technology that is fighting the dangerous scourge of counterfeit medicine through a simple SMS system. When people get medicine they scratch on a panel hiding a unique Sproxil code and SMS the code (for free) to the Sproxil number. They then get an SMS back that lets then know if it is genuine.

Innovation in the health industry doesn’t just need to be the obvious, either. There is a lot going on in the supportive structures, such as administration. Paperwork and administration are big challenges, and communication between patients, doctors, and everyone in-between can be much better. Plenty of research has shown that if the doctor’s office doesn’t contact a patient to remind them to get their medicine, or come for a follow-up appointment, they forget about it, or put it off. Access.Mobile in Uganda helps to solve many of these administrative challenges through its app, amHealth, which connects doctors and patients through the mobile phone in simpler ways. It sends out automated reminders about appointments or medicine collection, lets you send out bulk SMS’s to groups, manage appointment schedules between practitioners, track payments, and provide patient history, plus much more. Patients can pay bills through the app, receive vital information, and more.

Then there’s Dr Eddy Agbo from Nigeria, a molecular biologist, who has created a new 25minute test for malaria that costs only around $2.Until now the only way to test for malaria has been via blood samples which take days before results. Agbo’s solution is a simple urine test – much like a pregnancy test. With the World Health Organisation (WHO) telling us that 214 million cases in 2015 in Africa were due to Malaria, we can see that Agbo has created a lowcost solution that meets an African problem where Africa is at.
Innovation is not necessarily invention. We don’t need something complicated, expensive, or hyper-futuristic. All of these innovations are using simple technology to solve on-the-ground African challenges. The challenge is for innovators to collaborate, to find innovators in other industries that can make their product work better. We need supporting infrastructure: health insurance innovations, stock management solutions, government support, and so on. For example, Agbo’s test is brilliant, but how do you order it and get it to rural areas? Can it be bought through an SMS or digital payment service? Can it be supplied via a microinsurance scheme?

The Health industry will play a key role in preparing the African workforce to be the largest asset the world has seen! In order to achieve this, a lot of our current innovators will need to work together in solving each others challenges. It is this out-of-the-box thinking that will drive Africa in the right direction.


By Nnamdi Oranye

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