Entrepreneur Neo Hutiri has come up with a simple, but brilliant system that helps patients collect chronic medication in seconds rather than spending hours in queues.
It took a life-changing illness to spark an idea he hopes will improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across South Africa.
Neo Hutiri, a qualified engineer, was well on his way to carving a career for himself when disaster struck: he was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) and found himself joining the ranks of state patients forced to queue for hours on end to collect their medication.
One day, a light bulb went off in his head: what if he harnessed his engineering knowledge and on-the-ground experience to come up with a system to streamline the service?
That's how the Pelebox Smart Locker was born – and if Neo (30) has his way, every state patient will be able to get their medication at the touch of a few buttons.
Neo is developing the lockers under the umbrella of his start-up company, Technovera, and is prepare to go for broke to make his venture work.
"Whenever I look at what I could be earning in the employment sector compared to what I make now, it's tough," he says when we meet him at the Tshimologong Precinct, a technology hub in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, where he has his office, "but it's satisfying to know there are people who believe in what I'm doing."
We make our way down a flight of stairs and there, bold and gleaming in the corner, is his invention.
Quickly, in front, first
The Pelebox Smart Locker is named after the Setswana word pele, which has three meanings: quickly, in front and first.
The idea, Neo says, was to build a device that's patient-centric and ensures people are served quickly. For him, the needs of the patient are at the heart of the innovation – and boy, is it smart. The grey and teal box is seriously impressive – it's kind of like a souped-up ATM.
The project, which is being run in conjunction with the Department of Health, is being piloted at the Stanza Bopape Clinic in Melody East. The plan is to roll out the lockers at other centres soon.
It works like this: patients who want their medications dispensed in lockers inform a health professional at the clinic, who registers patients and reserves a cubicle for them.
Clinic staff then load the pre-packed medication into Pelebox lockers and patients receive an SMS with a one-time pin (OTP) telling them their medication is ready for collection.
Patients arrive at the collection unit and authenticate themselves using the OTP and their cellphone number. A cubicle then pops open and the exchange is done.
The system also keeps track of all collection records and can be integrated into a patient's record-management system.
Neo, who's been working on his brainchild since 2014, has been collecting prizes for his invention.
He won R35 000 at the Festival of Ideas competition in 2015 and a cool R1 million in the Hack Jozi Challenge in 2016. He's now been shortlisted for the Royal Academy of Engineering's Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation.
The award is presented to a company using technology to make an impact on peoples' lives – which is exactly what Neo is doing.
An itch that needs scratching
Neo did his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at the University of Cape Town in 2010 and then his master's at the University of the Witwatersrand. He joined an engineering company and had grand ambitions of climbing the corporate ladder.
"I worked as a technical assistant to the chief operating officer. I reckon I could've gone all the way and become COO myself, but I kept feeling as if something was calling me – that I had an itch that needed to be scratched," he says.
At the end of 2013 he quit his job and joined forces with a university friend. They cashed in the pension money and savings and injected the funds into their business, GenWye, which was created to explore ideas in online shopping.
While working there, Neo was diagnosed with TB, but he'd scaled down significantly on his expenses, cancelling his medical aid and several accounts in order to have money to live on while trying to get his company off the ground.
No easy feat
Neo had to undergo treatment for six months, trekking to the Bophelong Clinic every two weeks to pick up his medication.
"As a patient you spend a significant amount of time collecting chronic medication," he says. "I finished my treatment while at GenWye, but it wasn't really working out. I decided to look at what else I could do and that's when the Pelebox concept came to me."
The concept was one thing; turning it into a viable business model was quite another. Neo knew it wasn't going to be easy, especially as he had only enough money left to live on for about six months.
"I then said, let me go for broke and I invested my last R80 000 in my idea," he says. "Fortunately I had a very accommodating housemate who was willing to cover most of my rent and I had other good friends who helped out as well."
Neo felt hopelessly out of his depth at first.
The healthcare world and dealing with government departments was unknown territory for him, but he was determined to see it through.
He brainstormed with anyone he knew in the sector, from his previous nurse and clinic manager to friends from university. Entering competitions also helped – especially ones that carried prize money.
Winning R1 million in the Hack Jozi Challenge was a godsend, he says. "That was two months before I ran out of money," he says with a laugh. After this he started networking with big players.
Towards the end of 2016 he finally managed to punt his idea to the Department of Health – and to his delight, it liked the idea and partnered him with the City of Tshwane.
So far, Pelebox Smart Lockers have been responsible for more than 8 000 patient collections in Gauteng. Neo and his team of six plan to extend the project to eight more locations in the coming months. "We're already manufacturing. I'm not allowed to talk about where the lockers will be situated, but they're going to be commissioned by April," he says.
"The premise was this: let's take someone from a three-hour queue to a system that takes only two minutes – but we found out that, on average, patients using our lockers were able to collect their medicine in under 36 seconds."
The units vary in size. There are units with 72 doors, so 72 patients are catered for each day, reaching a capacity of about 1 640 a month. Units with 99 doors can service 1 800 patients a month. "It's a modular system, so we can add more doors, depending on growth," Neo says.
Neo depends on sponsors and partners to help the company survive and to pay salaries and he rents an assembly space in Joburg where the lockers are made, but money is not his main motivation.
"There's a great deal of satisfaction knowing you're living out your dream, that you're doing the thing you studied to be great at. And that you're making a difference at the same time."
Image credit: Drum