Africa is innovating

2014-05-09 00:00

DEVELOPMENT in Africa has had a long history of Western influence and subsequent failure. The deployment of Western strategies has been especially problematic in the health sector.

In the later part of the nineties, health initiatives were implemented throughout the continent to combat the spread of HIV. Unfortunately, many of the approaches used were based on programmes that had garnered success in North American cities, with vastly different populations and infrastructure from the African countries they were doled out in. Even more problematic was the universality with which the programmes were unleashed, illuminating the flawed conceptualisation of Africa as a country instead of a multifaceted continent.

Today, attitudes around Africa are shifting. We’ve learnt that community- developed programmes garner far greater success than ones developed in the West, especially when it comes to health. As a result, Africa is seeing a boom in new health technologies that are tailored to fit the needs of the communities they are developed for. Africa is innovating.

At the forefront of African-based health innovation is the Centre for Health Market Innovations (CHMI), an integrated platform that crowd sources community initiatives and connects them with the funding that they need to flourish. So it’s sort of like Kickstarter, for ideas. The goal of the network is to expand access to affordable and effective health care in emerging countries. It currently facilitates over 1 200 individual projects in 122 countries in the developing world, many of those in Africa.

Another project is Wireless Reach Initiative, which is a Kenyan-based technology intervention programme targeted at individuals living with HIV. The technology utilises 3G connectivity to equip better antiretroviral (ART) treatment centres and patients to manage care. Successful ART treatment is highly dependent on drug adherence (taking the right dose of medication at the right time, every day). With better management and adherence, ART treatment can not only help people living with HIV lead more normal lives, but also prevent them from passing on the disease. By utilising a technology already present in many patients’ lives, the cellphone, Wireless Reach Initiative is creating a realistic and accessible technology with the potential to help millions of Kenyans.

The South African enterprise Unjani Clinics is literally clinics in a box. It started in 2010 with the goal of offering primary health care to underserviced communities at an affordable price. The start-up constructs clinics from repurposed second-hand shipping containers. Once ordered, the clinics can be delivered and be up and running in a matter of weeks virtually anywhere. Additionally, the clinics provide a source of revenue for the community by generating funds through the services offered.

WE Care Solar, another CHMI-funded project, is the pioneer of the solar suitcase. Sporadic power outages plague most African countries, limiting the level of care that health professionals can offer, and often compromising procedures. Initially engineered for midwives in Nigeria, the solar suitcase provides a portable, and more importantly, affordable power source for health workers. The initiative has been widely successful in developing countries throughout the world, but it all started in Nigeria.

Jacaranda Health is a maternal-health enterprise in Kenya. As a social business, its goal is to provide affordable and accessible reproductive health care to women and newborns in marginalised communities. Its model is focused on growth and innovation to ensure it is addressing the issues faced by the communities it operates in, and provide cost-effective, high-quality care. Jacaranda has focused on further fostering the development of nurses within the country, instead of looking to a physician-centred initiative. This builds on the skills already present in the country instead of importing solutions from abroad. Lastly, it has harnessed readily available technology, like cellphones, to disseminate information, manage payment plans for patients and communicate.

Africa is at an intriguing turning point in its history. Innovations, like the ones supported by CHMI, reflect a continent that is interested in solving its own problems. All that’s missing, for large-scale evolution, is the tools to build the future. Organisations like CHMI are playing a small part in providing programmes with those tools, and change is coming slowly. This continent is on the brink of a massive overhaul; health initiatives are just the beginning. — Memeburn.

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