Innovation: the key to an economic revolution in Africa

May 2, 2017
Originally published in: PATH
Written by Dr. Craig Friderichs
Photo by Charles Meadows

An exciting event in Africa highlights the need for homegrown solutions to bolster innovation throughout the continent and worldwide.

An automated medicine dispensing system. A novel vaccine for a disease that disproportionately affects African infants. A low-cost device to prevent mothers dying during childbirth. This is what Africa-led innovation looks like. And it’s on the rise, at a fast pace, creating opportunities and homegrown solutions like never before. Innovations like these go beyond the development of new tools and devices to a new level of ingenuity in the way we approach systems, processes, and even policy.

The world is taking notice of Africa as an emerging competitor in global markets and as a contributor to global health, rich with entrepreneurial energy and innovative capability. In my experience as PATH’s South Africa country director, it is exciting to witness the creativity and talent brimming in Africa right now.

African innovations for Africans

I’m seeing an increased drive for excellence in science, technology, and innovation on our continent, which leads to creating an environment of economic prosperity. We are also well-positioned to understand our own needs and work toward solutions that pave the way for development. As Africa works toward a poverty-free generation by 2030, there are a number of innovations with high potential to change the face of the public health system. Here are just a few:

A shining example from South Africa is the Technovera. Neo Hutiri, a local innovator, developed the “Technovera smart locker,” which is an automated medicine dispensing system aimed at reducing the burden of long waiting periods at local hospitals for chronic patients collecting their medication. The device allows users to collect medication prescriptions in a much shorter time frame of up to only a few minutes instead of the usual long hours in queues. This will mean more efficiency for government hospitals, more compliance to treatment by patients, and less cost for the government in the current model of care for chronic patients.

Such innovations clearly demonstrate the potential for investments in health innovations to reduce health system costs and boost economic productivity.

Netcare Hospital, Western Cape, South Africa

Doctors and nurses at Netcare Hospital, Western Cape, South Africa, demonstrate the Sinapi chest drain. Photo: PATH/Charles Meadows.

In another example of how innovation is driven by a very specific need, doctors in South Africa recognized the need for a better way to drain chest wounds from gunshots, stabs, and other trauma. They worked with Sinapi Biomedical to design a device to more effectively and safely drain fluid, which will not only improve health outcomes but also reduce costs. The chest drain helped Sinapi establish its business, creating more than 100 jobs. It is now being exported to other countries in Africa and beyond.

The South African Health Advocacy Coalition (SAHTAC)a coalition that advocates for increased investments in health research and development by the South African government, together with PATH recently highlighted the Sinapi chest drain and other stories of homegrown innovation in South Africa in a series of videos.

Several other health innovations from Kenya are being developed through the Maker Movement for MNCH, a partnership between the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta National Hospital, where local innovators have come together to develop technologies that save the lives of mothers and newborn babies. Due to the immense financial pressure on the public health system in sourcing equipment and spare parts, medical equipment is either inadequate in number or largely broken down. The partnership aims to develop affordable medical devices, using local expertise and material, suitable for use in low-resource settings. One such device is a suction machine used to clear an infant’s airway after birth or during an operation. The machine is close to clinical trial phase after having undergone successful calibration and it is hoped that once scaled up, it will contribute significantly to improving maternal and child health outcomes in Kenya.

A suction machine created by engineering students at the University of Nairobi

Engineering students at the University of Nairobi with a suction machine they designed for clearing a newborn’s airways. Newborn-ward nurses say they like this version better than the machine they currently use. Photo: Stephen Morrison, Concern Worldwide US

The way forward for African innovators

Innovation in Africa is certainly taking off, but there is still a great need for more support to ensure that entrepreneurs and local innovators continue to get the resources they need to be successful. We look to the government and the private sector to help fuel this entrepreneurial energy. The Innovation Effect Africa is a platform for this type of discussion that focuses on not only the need for homegrown innovation, but also on highlighting existing challenges and opportunities for bolstering the innovation ecosystem in Africa. The event will celebrate the successes of African innovators from countries like South Africa, Senegal, Kenya, and more, and it will bring together stakeholders from the public, private, and nongovernmental industries all over Africa as well as the world.

The African continent is truly experiencing exciting changes.  Now is the time for all stakeholders to rise to the occasion and take action to continue the economic and social transformation needed to impact the public health system in years to come.

Learn more about Concern’s Centre for Innovation and Health: