Let’s reinvent the wheel

Man standing next to computer monitor.

A homegrown approach to transforming health care innovation in Africa

Sixteen kilometers west of downtown Nairobi lies a university campus housing one of the most advanced research facilities in the world. Launched in November 2013, this facility is the location for IBM’s 12th global research and innovation lab dedicated to solving Africa’s biggest challenges. It is the result of a partnership with the Kenyan government, with IBM committed to investing US$10 million in the first two years and the Kenyan government contributing a similar amount over the next five years.

With these funds, IBM is building one of Africa’s most advanced cloud-enabled computing hubs with the ability to collect and analyze large amounts of data to build sustainable solutions for Africa’s most pressing challenges. The ambitious and highly localized research agenda includes areas such as agriculture, energy, financial inclusion, health care, public safety, transportation, and water.

To tackle these challenges, IBM has hired a research staff that is somewhat unique in its composition. IBM pairs seasoned researchers with more than 20 young Africans, many holding PhDs from universities abroad. These young African scientists are part of the large diaspora beginning to return home to participate in Africa’s newfound economic growth. I should know. I am one of them.

"The principal way to transform Africa’s health systems is to deliberately invest in and partner with African institutions in order to build local capacity focused on local African problems."The UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates that there are 3 million tertiary-educated migrants from sub-Saharan Africa living in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Africa’s highly educated diaspora is a vastly underutilized resource in the quest to build homegrown innovation that is fundamental to solving Africa’s health care challenges.

As the global health community moves toward the post-2015 agenda, Africa’s health care challenges remain formidable. Despite recent improvements, the health of the vast majority of Africans is still at risk. Sub-Saharan Africa has 11% of the global population but carries 24% of the world’s disease burden. On the basic indicators of health, the continent compares poorly with other developing regions. One in six children born in the region today will die before age five. African women face more than 100 times the risk of maternal mortality than women in the developed world. The average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is a mere 52 years. And sadly, most of the countries will not meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for health by 2015, let alone address the significant threat of noncommunicable diseases now on the horizon.

This can change. I believe that the principal way to transform Africa’s health systems is to deliberately invest in and partner with African institutions in order to build local capacity focused on local African problems. The ingredients for success already exist. What remains is for the global community to reinvent its approach.

We must ask the right questions in order to better utilize the window of opportunity that exists today: How can we entice more Africans in the diaspora to return home? How can we take advantage of ubiquitous data and technology? How do we better partner with local enterprise and governments to create innovation hubs and ecosystems? How do we move from today’s siloed approaches toward a holistic approach that builds more sustainable African health systems?

Africa’s health systems are at an inflection point. As we move toward the post-2015 agenda and the UN’s agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals, the global health community has a rare opportunity to reinvent its approach to innovation and transform the health of Africa.

Photo: PATH/Eric Becker.