January 18, 2011

African innovators are meeting the continent’s health needs


Moses Musaazi at Makerere University, Uganda, invented this easy-to-use portable medical waste incinerator. It is one of 25 “stagnating” technologies that researchers discovered in African health-research institutions that never made it to market for lack of investment and support. Credit: Ken Simiyu, McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health

A series of studies on the state of medical science and business in sub-Saharan Africa showed something that a lot of us in the development community already knew: Innovation is thriving in Africa. Africans are producing clinically tested drugs, vaccines and medical devices. Researchers at the University of Toronto’s McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health (MRC) documented dozens of examples, and published many of them online Dec. 10 in the journal Science, and Dec.13 in BioMed Central’s open access journal BMC International Health and Human Rights.

“Many people will die if we wait for scientists from elsewhere to invent and market the health products Africa needs,” MRC Director Peter Singer writes. “These studies demonstrate that, with the right partners and incentives, Africans have the scientific creativity and entrepreneurial talent to improve local health and prosper at the same time.”

MRC looked at four countries—Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania—and seven African institutions that develop health products and venture capital. Their observations point out interesting targets for development work. While some African organizations have taken products from drawing boards to store shelves, many others can’t get their products out of the lab. Of note to the E4C community: African organizations need financing, sure, but they also need training, infrastructure and other hardware. These are some examples of interest.

Good ideas that didn’t launch

In Science, the researchers list 25 “stagnant” technologies that, despite their promise, never moved beyond the lab or the prototype. Sixteen of those are plant-based drugs. Among the nine remaining, however, there are two devices that may interest E4C.

Schistosoma detector

One is a low-cost dipstick for detecting Schistosoma parasites in urine. The parasites begin and end their lifecycles in humans, but there are a couple of steps in between during which they infect freshwater snails, then, when they’ve matured, they swim for their human victims in the infested water. The conventional way to test for them is to hunt for their eggs in urine or stools under a microscope in a laboratory. The procedure takes time and can be relatively costly.

Researchers at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research in Accra, Ghana, improved the process. They developed a dipstick method, a plastic membrane coated with an antibody that reacts to the parasite in urine. It’s cheaper, quicker, and may even be more accurate than the microscope. But, so far, the invention hasn’t been able to progress to widescale manufacture.

Portable medical waste incinerator

The second is a portable medical waste incinerator. Engineers at Makerere University in Uganda made a low-cost incinerator that’s easy to use and WHO approved. It uses no fuel other than the waste itself and it burns at up to 800 C. The incinerator could solve medical waste disposal problems in rural areas, especially during mass vaccination programs (such as polio immunization). But first, someone has to manufacture and distribute it.

Success story: Tanzanian mosquito nets

The A to Z textile company in Tanzania is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets. The World Health Organization credits such nets with cutting malaria mortality by 14-60% in different regions of Africa. And A to Z has produced tens of millions of them.

The company has succeeded in spite of business-adverse regulatory and procurement rules and other obstacles, MRC reports. It’s an example of a successful business model, which MRC details here.

How a technology incubator can succeed

Another business model, the technology incubator, has met with mixed success. Acorn Technologies in South Africa helped support 12 biomedical device firms. Among the incubator’s strengths were its non-profit status and its low overhead. It’s a virtual incubator with most of its infrastructure online. Acorn seeks out entrepreneurs who develop medical technologies and offers them training and networking opportunities, both locally and internationally. In a case study, one of the products that Acorn tried to help bring to market stalled. The manufacturing company had failed to diversify and couldn’t adapt to a sudden governmental policy shift in its home country.

Incubators like Acorn can work, the researchers write. They recommend that African countries pool their resources to create regional innovation centers that can link science with business acumen and capital.


These are some of MRC’s other observations:

  • Emerging innovation systems are driven by local (not external) health concerns;
  • Institutions used innovative financing and partnerships;
  • All of the countries studied strongly emphasized plant-based medicines;
  • Investing in research and development is fundamental to success, as is providing incentives for entrepreneurs and fortifying institutions;
  • Africa’s health innovation systems are increasingly globalized and benefit from international partnerships;
  • There are few links between groups now, but business incubation, such as science innovation centers, will be important in the future.

Online resources:

The papers are published at BioMed Central, here.

A 25-minute interview with Singer and MRC researcher Ken Simiyu is available here.

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