Taking a bold step forward: innovation in Africa

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Africa is often seen as a region where innovation is lacking. How wrong this view is! Africa is the land of opportunity, and innovation is a key factor driving this. Whether countries are pioneering mobile health or health systems research, Africa can often be seen on the forefront of innovation. "Africa can often be seen on the forefront of innovation. Our challenge is translating such innovation to scale and impact."Our challenge is translating such innovation to scale and impact.

Nowhere is innovation in Africa more critical than in the field of health care. Whether it equips us to diagnose a patient at the most remote clinic, or whether it ensures the quality and integrity of medicines, innovation is central to driving better patient care toward 2030.

The first thing to realize about Africa is that we are different from the rest of the world. Compared to other regions, we have unique needs, a genetically diverse population, different diets, and a very different disease burden profile. Taking these differences into account, one soon learns that innovation and impact are measured quite differently here than they are in the northern hemisphere. Impact factors and citation rates are important to us. But saving lives and impact are most important.

At the Medical Research Council in South Africa, we seek to focus on the impact of innovation to save lives. We are approaching this goal in partnership and with a focus on the key disease burdens of our continent. One such example is our exciting partnership with PATH to develop critical interventions focusing on maternal and child health by taking projects to scale. These interventions include a low-cost Doppler device to measure umbilical function in the last trimester of pregnancy, which could reduce infant mortality in an environment where an ultrasound is a three-hour drive away.

"We’re rethinking the possibilities in light of Africa’s unique needs and capabilities."In Africa, waiting times at rural clinics can often be more than 12 hours. As a result, many sick people are sent home untreated, even though many can’t afford the fare to return to clinic the following day. These individuals are lost to the system. To overcome this challenge, we are focusing on developing an electronic triage device that seeks to radically reduce patient waiting times and help those in greatest need first. Our first study in this domain showed a radical improvement of triage times, a vast reduction of errors, and improved patient outcomes. Building on this momentum, we will next seek to address the challenge of developing electronic records of patients.

None of these examples required the latest technology—this is not always Africa’s need in health care. Rather, they involved a new way of approaching enduring problems, rethinking the possibilities in light of Africa’s unique needs as well as our unique capabilities.

Photo: PATH/Laura Newman.