Young African Innovators Lack Investment Not Creativity, Awards Ceremony Told
Panelists at the Africa Young Innovators for Health Award Ceremony, held on Thursday.

Africa has the highest entrepreneurship rate in the world, yet greater financial resources are needed to ensure that innovation can be implemented to strengthen health systems and the welfare of health workers, said panellists at an innovation award ceremony on Thursday.

The Africa Young Innovators for Health Award, co-organised by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) and Speak Up Africa, launched its first competition this year designed to highlight and support the work of pioneering young African entrepreneurs in the field of health innovations, particularly healthcare solutions to support healthcare workers. 

Attracting over 300 entries from 33 countries, the winners had developed innovations to assist in cancer diagnosis, health worker development and patient record retrieval.

Winner Dr Conrad Tankou, CEO of Global Innovation and Creativity Space in Cameroon, developed GICMED, a suite of medical technologies that helps to screen and diagnose breast and cervical cancer in women. 

Dr Conrad Tankou, CEO of Global Innovation and Creativity Space, won first place for the Africa Young Innovators for Health Award.

Breast and cervical cancer account for 50% of all new cancers in Sub-saharan African women. Healthcare workers can be trained to use the technology to remotely screen women with real-time pathology confirmation and connect them to a point of care for treatment. 

“It is an honour to receive the first-ever Africa Young Innovators for Health Award,” said Tankou. “With the Award’s financial and business mentorship support, we can upgrade our technologies and start scaling our solution much quicker by investing in manufacturing capabilities and building more local partnerships.”

In second place was John Mwangi, CEO of Daktari Media Africa in Kenya, who established Daktari Online, which provides a professional development platform for healthcare workers. 

John Mwangi, CEO of Daktari Media Africa, won second place for the Africa Young Innovators for Health Award.

Currently 13,000 health workers use the platform and it has been accredited by the regulatory bodies for pharmacists, pharmaceutical technologists, and physician assistants.

“The practice of medicine requires continuous updating…and that’s what we seek to do,” said Mwangi. “We said why don’t we just democratize [access to information and professional development] and have this accessible to people even from remote areas.”

The third-place winner, Dr Imodoye Abioro, CEO of Healthbotics in Nigeria, developed an artificial intelligence (AI) powered electronic medical record system – Mediverse – that utilizes blockchain to help healthcare workers input and retrieve patient records. 

Dr Imodoye Abioro, CEO of Healthbotics in Nigeria, won third place for the Africa Young Innovators for Health Award.

The technology could work on any device and even in places where the internet has not yet reached.

“We do not have enough healthcare workers for the disease burden we’re battling,” said Abioro. “The first thought we had was how do we make the healthcare worker more effective, how can he or she see more patients, how can he or she be smarter or faster.”

“Mediverse is what we consider to be a solution that will be necessary for us to build a sustainable healthcare infrastructure in Africa upon,” Abioro added.

“This could really revolutionize the way that healthcare workers are able to access the data they need about their patients in real time,” said Nicole Kayode, CEO and Founder of Medixus. 

The winners take home between US$15,000 and US$40,000 and will benefit from a business mentorship program, media exposure, technical training on intellectual property protection, and expert advice from an extensive network of stakeholders working across healthcare mediums.

More investment needed

Some 22% of Africa’s working-age population are starting businesses, “yet more investment in human capital is needed for this demographic potential to reap the development rewards it should,” said Thomas Cueni, Director-General of IFPMA.

“We are confident that the winners of the African Young Innovators for health award will contribute to improving health systems and growing African economies,” added Cueni. 

“We don’t lack ideas or creativity, that’s not what’s missing,” said Dr Awa Marie Coll-Seck, Senegal’s Minister of State of Senegal and former health minister. “Among innovators, it’s often about the lack of financial resources for research…This is what stops them from concretising their ideas and developing prototypes.”

“We need to give [the young innovators] the opportunity to develop ideas and their expertise,” said Coll-Seck.

Africa is the youngest continent on the planet. By 2050, Africa’s youth population under the age of 24 will increase by nearly 50%. This presents an opportunity for rapid social and economic transformation, said the panelists. 

In 2019, sub-Saharan African countries were classified among the hundred best countries in terms of innovation.

Africa facing massive shortages in healthcare workforce

Africa bears a quarter of the global disease burden but faces a shortage of over two million healthcare professionals. Only 2% of the world’s healthcare workforce are from the continent. 

“Our world lacks about 18 million health workers globally and…Africa is the place that really suffers the most from it,” said Pape Gaye, President Emeritus of IntraHealth International, addressing the awards ceremony.

The shortage of human and financial resources invested in the African healthcare system is putting a strain on healthcare workers and the broader national and regional health infrastructure.

“COVID-19 has laid bare the underlying inequities and prejudices in existing healthcare,” said Dr Moredreck Chibi, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Africa Advisor for Innovation. “Our young people [need to] take the bull by its horn and apply their intellectual capital to address some of these challenges.”

Dr Moredreck Chibi, WHO Regional Advisor for Innovation for the Regional Office for Africa.

“Only this approach will ensure Africa’s sustainable path for the future of health on the continent,” said Chibi. 

“As we are all aware, the COVID pandemic has been devastating and exposed the vulnerabilities of health systems across the globe, including in Africa,” said Dr Lindiwe Makubalo, WHO Assistant Regional Director for Africa. “There could be no better time to draw on the rich human capital, especially among young people, to find solutions to the problems that we are facing.”

“COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for the continent. It is inevitable that we need to think outside the box to solve these problems,” said Makubalo. 

Innovation is a central component of public health

“Innovation has always been the driving force of progress in public health, from vaccines to penicillin to the mapping of the human genome,” said Cueni. “Innovations have changed the world and this has never been more evident than with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 were developed by pharma companies in record time due to large investments in research and a lot of innovation. 

“We have seen from smartphones to drones, there’s no doubt that technology and innovation are leapfrogging Africa and future young African entrepreneurs are playing a crucial role by developing creative ideas that can resolve the various health challenges on the continent,” said Cueni.

Thomas Cueni, Director General of the IFPMA, at the award ceremony on Thursday.

The panelists called on countries to support efforts and innovations of the youth by harnessing domestic resources through advocacy for partner financing and the creation of platforms to showcase initiatives.

Partnerships with private sector are essential

“We all know that innovation is best when it is tailored to the local context and that we should think about those who need it most when we’re creating them, and how we can create the most impact,” said Yacine Djibo, Founder and Executive Director of Speak Up Africa. 

Yacine Djibo, Founder and Executive Director of Speak Up Africa.

Building science, technology, and innovation capacity, as well as stimulating the existing entrepreneurial culture in Africa should be a priority, said Djibo. 

Collaboration with the private sector will increase the opportunities for innovation and help the continent build sustainable health systems.

“Health system strengthening and the potential of Africa’s private sector are crucially important for unleashing the entrepreneurial power of Africa’s young people,” said Cueni. “This will create innovative and compelling modern businesses, increase the capacity for these businesses to compete regionally and globally, attract both domestic and foreign investment, and diversify investment profiles.”

This will contribute to job creation and economic growth across the region.

“By leveraging its resources, expertise, networks, infrastructure, and assets, the private sector can focus on innovation for new technologies, systems, and processes, [and] can influence policy and form partnerships that will have continent-wide impact on the populations,” said Cueni. 

“We are extremely impressed by the quality of the applications we received. These applications are a shining example that young Africans are bursting with creativity and are constantly looking for local-based solutions that work,” said Djibo.

With only one-fifth of applications to the innovation award coming from women, the IFPMA and Speak Up Africa have launched the Women Innovators Incubator to address the gaps in female-led innovation. Three female participants will receive financial support, mentorship, media training, expert advice on intellectual property protection, and access to a network of global health experts.

Image Credits: Africa Young Innovators for Health Award, Africa Young Innovators for Health Award.

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