4 Healthcare Companies in Africa Leveraging Technology to Drive Innovative Solutions
By: Leah Ngari
Africans have been living steadily longer lives over the past 20 years. Despite this progress, however, the average life expectancy at birth in Sub-Saharan Africa is only around 61 years – by far the lowest in the world, and over 10 years lower than the world average of 72.6.
The increase in longevity over the past two decades are due in large part to reductions in childhood mortality, increased access to medical treatment for AIDS/HIV, and improved nutrition. But as the continent continues to tackle last century’s epidemics, new health threats are emerging. As the population on the continent gets older, the prevalence of non-communicable disease, such as cancer and heart disease, will continue to increase, taxing the already greatly overburdened healthcare system.
Healthcare in Africa is strikingly underfunded compared to the global average. Sub-Saharan African (SSA) governments spend, on average, a quarter of the global average government health expenditures in terms of relative budget share. While some of the difference in spending is offset by private and public development assistance funds, current health expenditures per capita are less than 10% of the world average. According to the World Health Organization, Africa shoulders 24% of the world’s disease burden, but only 3% of the world’s health workers working with less than 1% of world health expenditures.
Everyone should have access to basic healthcare; yet this right remains unattainable by many Africans. With an estimated population of about 1 billion people that keeps growing, most public health systems in Africa are straining to keep up. And with so many urgent demands on the national budgets, countries find that increasing government spending on health is not always feasible.
However, it’s not all gloom on this continent. Despite the challenges faced, many have found creative and innovative ways to improve different aspects of healthcare in Africa. Governments are using data and technology to improve healthcare despite the financial constraints. And by focussing on delivering specific services in an optimal way, the private sector has stepped in to deliver results where they are needed most. The following companies and projects showcase the region’s exceptional ability to solve problems by inventing and adopting new systems and technologies.
Innovative Public Health Solutions from Around the Continent
1. LifeBank – Nigeria
Patients in Nigeria, like in every other country around the world, often need a blood transfusion to stay alive. Unfortunately, not all hospitals have enough blood for all the patients. Temie Giwa-Tubosun, the company’s founder, describes LifeBank as a “technology and logistics start-up.” The company uses technology to identify available blood, communicate the whereabouts and availability of the blood to the company’s clients, and then pick up and deliver the available blood based on the client’s request. Lifebank works with motorbike riders who store the blood in cooling devices while awaiting notifications on where to transport the blood. The company’s app also helps users sign up as blood donors, further optimizing the blood supply chain.
LifeBank has been quick to mobilize In the face of the coronavirus pandemic: the company has diverted resources to create a national register of hospitals with working and broken ventilators, respirators, and ICU beds to prepare the country for the treatment of future COVID-19 patients.
2. Zipline – Rwanda
This California-based company partnered up with the Rwandan government to kickstart the use of drones in the health sector. Rwanda’s very hilly terrain and lack of extensive road networks makes it hard to transport goods and provide services to areas far from the capital city, Kigali. Patients in such remote areas are vulnerable to succumb to an array of treatable illnesses just because they couldn’t get a blood transfusion or medical supplies on time.
Zipline solves this problem by using drones instead of traditional trucks to transport vital health products across the country. Since 2016, Zipline has transported blood and medical supplies to some of the most remote parts of Rwanda, sometimes cutting delivery time from over three hours to fifteen minutes.
In 2019, Zipline expanded to Ghana, delivering much-needed vaccines, blood, and other health products on demand. It continues to scale its operations, and has plans to expand further within and outside of Africa.
3. Praekelt.org – South Africa
In 2019, around 22 million people, or one-third of the population, used smartphones in South Africa – and this number is steadily rising. Increased smartphone penetration makes it easier for the government to communicate efficiently with its citizens and relay critical public health information.
South Africa has the largest number of coronavirus cases in SSA to date, but the government reacted quickly and efficiently using the means at its disposal. A strict lockdown has proved effective in slowing the spread of the virus. And thanks to the rise in smartphone use, the South African government has been able to save lives by delivering urgent information concerning the Coronavirus to its citizens.
The South African government has partnered with Praekelt.org, a local non-profit, to develop a Whatsapp bot that would reply to South Africans’ questions on the pandemic. The service answers questions on a variety of topics related to the pandemic including symptoms, available treatments, and debunking myths.
In late March, after 2.6 million South Africans successfully used the platform to receive accurate and potentially life-saving information about the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted the technology. The WHO Health Alerts launched on March 20, and surpassed 10 million users in just three days.
4. diaTROPIX – Senegal
The diaTROPiX initiative was launched in 2018 as a collaboration between Institut Pasteur of Dakar, the French National Research Institute for Development (IRD), and the Mérieux Foundation with the purpose of producing fast diagnostic tests that would facilitate the control of tropical diseases in Senegal. The initiative grew out of a collaborative work on creating a field diagnostic test for the Zika virus.
Now, thanks to a grant from UK AID, diaTROPIX scientists are teaming up with UK-based diagnostic specialist Mologic to design and manufacture testing kits for the Coronavirus that will allow health officials to test individuals for the virus at home and receive the results in ten minutes, eliminating the need for laboratories or electricity. In a continent where laboratories are few and have limited capacity, and where access to electricity is still too often unreliable, these ten minute kits will be of immense help to the African population. Individuals will be able to test themselves at home and proceed to self-isolation if necessary, thereby flattening the curve.
Mologic is currently concluding an initial assessment of the diagnostic test prototypes before shipping them to its international partners, including diaTROPIX-affiliated Institut Pasteur of Dakar, for validation and manufacturing. If everything continues smoothly, diaTROPIX will begin manufacturing the testing kits – which will be sold at cost – as early as June.
The Mologic-diaTROPIX collaboration is expected to continue once the Coronavirus pandemic has subsided: the partnership is working on developing an early-detection Ebola test, which could help prevent the next Ebola outbreak on the continent.
Good health and well-being is among the UN’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that guide international efforts to achieving global peace and prosperity. Now, as the international community continues to battle COVID-19, the critical importance of a functional and resilient public health system is more apparent than ever.
On a continent where the ever increasing population with its demand for health services and products already strains the available financial resources, numerous creative healthcare solutions have helped the continent deal with personal and public health issues. Innovation and technology can help health officials and private companies collect and store critical patient and public health information, provide telehealth services, and more. Significant gaps continue to exist that must be filled to increase Africa’s healthcare capacity.