The African health-care sector continues to struggle with a lack of resources and funding, but creative uses of technology offer new possibilities for improving access to medical treatment. Building on developments spurred by the pandemic, health tech on the continent is poised for explosive growth.
NAIROBI – Africa’s health systems suffer from serious inefficiencies. Countries across the continent struggle with disruptions in medical equipment and drug supply chains, last-mile health-services delivery, medical data analysis and storage, and financing. But innovations in telemedicine, drones, big data analytics, wearables, and information management have brought the possibility of effective, affordable solutions into view, promising to improve overall health outcomes.
In recent years, African health tech has recorded impressive growth. More than 40 health-tech start-ups on the continent received series A funding in 2020 alone. Recently launched firms cover a range of health-related fields, including genetic sequencing, drug procurement, and health literacy.
The growth opportunities are enormous. But for health-tech companies to thrive, entrepreneurs must study past successes and failures to determine what works and what does not in the African context.
Wisepill, established in 2007, is one of African health tech’s earliest success stories. The South African company developed a storage container that alerts users via their mobile device when they forget to take their medication. It also notifies doctors or researchers when a pill is taken. Multiple studies in South Africa and Uganda showed that Wisepill improved rates of adherence to medication regimens to more than 90%.
Wisepill succeeded because it stayed focused on the problem it wanted to solve. The story of Meditell, a Nigerian health-tech start-up that also hoped to improve medication compliance, is a more cautionary tale. Meditell’s founders developed software that would send text messages from hospitals to patients to remind them to take their medicine. To attract interest in the product, the founders engaged in complex negotiations with insurance systems and pharmaceutical companies. As Meditell tried to modify its product to meet demands from these potential clients, it moved further away from its initial goal and ultimately failed.
But it is possible for African health-tech firms to scale up if they start small, grow slowly, and respond to the clients they have. District Health Information Software (DHIS), which manages health data, began recording patient information on its platform in three small districts in South Africa. As interest in the platform grew, DHIS programmers worked to expand its features and improve its usability in different contexts. Today, the platform has been adopted in 73 countries.
African health-tech entrepreneurs have demonstrated an impressive talent for making the most of the resources available to them. Internet connectivity was not widespread in the mid-2000s, when the founders of Frontline SMS wanted to improve communication between community health workers and hospital staff. Adapting to infrastructure constraints, they developed a program to pass information via simple text-message technology, which also could be used to send images of blood samples taken with a basic camera phone, thereby allowing patients to be diagnosed without going to a clinic.
Less than a generation later, those constraints on African health-tech firms are rapidly disappearing. Today, Africa has one of the world’s fastest-growing mobile- and internet-penetration rates. And the response to COVID-19 has spurred innovation – and investment – in the sector. Health tech in Africa attracted more funding in 2020 than ever before.
African health-tech start-ups can grow quickly because the continent’s health-care systems often face similar challenges. A project that is successful in one country can easily be replicated in many more. For example, the telehealth pioneer mPharma, founded in Ghana, recently received funding to set up 100 virtual clinics in seven new markets.
To encourage this kind of innovation and growth, African governments must develop and sustain policies that encourage health-tech innovation. Above all, that means providing developers with the clear rules and stable operating environment they need to attract “patient” capital. And health ministries should use their platforms to amplify the work that is being done.
For their part, start-up founders must identify gaps and shortcomings that can be solved with new technologies. And to attract users and the support of governments, African health-tech firms inevitably must focus on solutions that make health tech accessible and affordable, and continually work to improve the benefits to users.
The future of health care in Africa depends on innovation. The adoption of new technology can create opportunities to improve health literacy and access to care for all Africans. The pandemic was a catalyst for growth in health tech on the continent. Now entrepreneurs and government must sustain the momentum.
By STEPHEN OGWENO