6 entrepreneurs whose savvy innovations could boost healthcare across Africa
Malaria. Newborn jaundice. Hearing loss. These are just some of the health problems that the winners of this year’s Johnson & Johnson Africa Innovation Challenge are tackling by leveraging everything from apps to a smart formula for soap.
It’s easy to look around and see problems that need fixing—but it takes vision to do something about them. That’s what the founders of these six inspiring companies have in common: the ability to create innovative solutions to healthcare problems that are burdening their communities.
In fact, Johnson & Johnson was so impressed with their ideas for change that it’s helping the entrepreneurs bring their inventions to life. As part of its second Africa Innovation Challenge (AIC), the six start-ups were chosen from almost 900 applicants to receive up to $50,000 in funding and technical mentoring.
“There is a tremendous amount of innovation happening in Africa—entrepreneurs there are making a big difference using science and technology to help solve healthcare challenges in their communities and across the continent,” says Seema Kumar, Vice President, Innovation, Global Public Health and Science Policy Communication, Johnson & Johnson. “As a company, we look both internally and externally for solutions to serious healthcare issues, and the Africa Innovation Challenge is about finding, supporting and championing the most promising innovations and innovators, while strengthening and investing in the innovation ecosystem across Africa.”
From a soap that helps combat malaria to a hearing test that can be administered via a mobile phone, check out these truly impressive innovations that have the potential to save lives and promote better health in African communities where it’s needed most.
Crib A’Glow: A Portable, Solar-Powered Phototherapy Crib to Help Treat Jaundice
Two days after giving birth, Virtue Oboro noticed her son was lethargic and that his eyes and skin were yellow. He was diagnosed with severe neonatal jaundice, but due to a lack of phototherapy units in the hospital where they were in Nigeria, he couldn’t be treated right away—and needed an emergency blood transfusion as a result. Luckily, Oboro’s baby recovered, but almost 3.3 million babies in sub-Saharan Africa don’t receive proper treatment for this common affliction, which can lead to hearing loss, mental deficits, cerebral palsy and even death.
That’s why Oboro decided to design Crib A’Glow, a solar-powered, foldable phototherapy crib that uses LED lights to help treat newborn jaundice. The cribs are sold to hospitals and health centers in suburban and rural communities in Nigeria where access to stable electricity and top-notch healthcare is poor. Oboro also rents the cribs directly to new moms to help promote recovery for newborns. To date, the innovation has helped treat more than 600 babies. While a key component of Oboro’s work is maternal jaundice education, she hopes to leverage the AIC support to also increase production of the cribs, implement a mobile application to manage deliveries and develop a process that will help increase the reach of the company to be able to serve more rural areas.
DREET: A Mobile Phone-Based Hearing Test That Works in Four Minutes
In sub-Saharan Africa, a whopping 50 million people live with disabling hearing loss. DREET—which stands for detection, research, education, equipment and training—is poised to help with that. Tendekayi Katsiga, along with co-founder Sarah Phiri, who has mild hearing loss, actually have a track record of creating solutions for those with hearing loss. In 2009, they co-founded a company called Deaftronics, which developed solar-powered chargers for hearing aids.
With DREET, which is based in Botswana, their focus is now on screening: Patients put on noise-canceling headphones connected to a mobile phone, where an app performs a four-minute hearing test using sounds that correspond to animals or other images on the screen, and the results are evaluated in real time. One key highlight of this technology is that it can be used with people who can’t read or write, including very young children. With the money from their AIC recognition, the start-up plans to research distribution channels to be able to widely deploy DREET to those who need it most.
LifeBank: An App and Tracking System to Help Improve Medical Supply Deliveries in Africa
In Temie Giwa-Tubosun’s home country of Nigeria, postpartum hemorrhage is the leading cause of maternal mortality, and it’s due in part to a lack of a centralized blood delivery system to help save these new moms. So Giwa-Tubosun decided to do something about it.
Drawing on her experience as a healthcare administrator for the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Development Program, Giwa-Tubosun created LifeBank, a medical distribution company focused on saving mothers through blood deliveries. To do this, the company developed an app that connects hospitals with available blood supplies, as well as created the SmartBag tag, a blockchain-powered system that tracks the safety record of the blood. The tag travels with the blood, and upon delivery, hospitals can access essential information about it online, including the date of donation, which diseases the blood has been tested for and more.
The company also has another app that is designed to help people register to become voluntary blood donors and book appointments at blood banks closest to them—to date, LifeBank has moved over 16,000 units of blood, registered more than 3,500 donors, and worked with over 400 hospitals to save more than 4,500 lives.
Initially LifeBank used motorcycles for its blood deliveries, but it’s now working to expand its transportation options. It’s also evolving to focus on improving the discoverability, delivery, affordability and safety of other types of essential medical products, beginning with vaccines, in health systems across Africa. With support from AIC, Giwa-Tubosun plans to increase production and sales of the SmartBag tag.
Throughout her childhood, Joan Nalubega battled multiple bouts of malaria. Recognizing that preventive treatments were not always affordable or available, she created an affordable mosquito repellent soap that could offer protection for up to six hours.
The Ihangane Project (TIP): A Program to Help Tackle Healthcare Worker Burnout
Healthcare worker burnout is a serious problem around the world, which is why The Ihangane Project (TIP)—created in 2008 as a grassroots effort to address health challenges in Rwanda—is now focusing its attention on helping prevent healthcare worker burnout in the country.
Wendy Leonard, M.D. and colleagues Angele Ishimwe and Delphine Uwamahoro are adapting an existing tool used in the U.S. (called the Herth Hope Index) to help assess nurses and other healthcare workers at nine health centers in Rwanda. Thanks to their AIC support, the organization now plans to interview 150 people about the most common factors that affect optimism for a healthy future. The ultimate goal: help offer interventions, like stress management and mindfulness training, to promote hope among healthcare workers and stability in the healthcare system to improve health outcomes for patients, particularly mothers and babies.
mScan: A Mobile Ultrasound Scanner Designed to Improve Maternal Mortality
According to the WHO, over 800 women die every day due to pregnancy-related complications, with 99% of those women living in developing countries. What’s worse is that many of the causes of these deaths—like a deficiency in amniotic fluid or an umbilical cord problem—could be prevented if these issues could be detected with an ultrasound during pregnancy. Unfortunately, this common technology is frequently unavailable in rural African clinics. Enter mScan, a low-cost mobile ultrasound scanner that connects to a tablet to provide immediate information about how the pregnancy is developing.
Launched in 2017 by Prosper Ahimbisibwe, Menyo Innocent, Phyllis Kyomuhendo and Ivan Nasasira, mScan’s devices are now being used in five medical clinics in Uganda. More than 300 pregnant women have been scanned, to date, and with support from its AIC win, mScan plans to train frontline health workers in an effort to reach 1,000 women—as well as launch a clinical study. The team’s hope is to get the much-needed tech into the hands of healthcare workers across all of rural east Africa.
Uganics: A Mosquito Repellent Soap That Helps Combat Malaria
Malaria is a serious risk in Uganda, where it’s the leading cause of death. Joan Nalubega, founder of Uganics, knows this firsthand—throughout her childhood, she battled multiple bouts of malaria. Recognizing that preventive treatments were not always affordable or available, she created an affordable mosquito repellent soap that could offer protection for up to six hours. The soap is made using locally-sourced, plant-based repellent ingredients—citronella, lavender and peppermint—grown on under-utilized land owned by women farmers, allowing them to take advantage of resources they already have.
The soap is sold at a higher price—about $4 a bar—to tourists at five Ugandan resorts. These sales mean that Uganics can sell the potentially lifesaving soap to locals for only about 50 cents a bar. Thanks to the AIC win, Nalubega hopes to purchase more production equipment, train more farmers to grow the herbs and make the soap and fund further research that could help Uganics enter new markets around the world.