Health systems in Africa suffer from serious inefficiencies. Countries across the continent grapple with disruptions in medical equipment and medicines supply chainslast mile health service delivery, analysis and storage of medical dataand funding. But innovations in telemedicine, drones, big data analytics, wearable devices and information management have highlighted the possibility of effective and affordable solutions, promising to improve overall health outcomes.
In recent years, African health technology has recorded impressive growth. More than 40 health technologies start-up on the mainland received Series A funding in 2020 alone. Recently launched companies cover a range of health-related areas, including genetic sequencing, drug supply and health literacy. The growth opportunities are enormous. But for health tech companies to thrive, entrepreneurs need to study past successes and failures to determine what works and what doesn’t in the African context.
Sagepill, established in 2007, is one of Africa’s first health technology success stories. The South African company has 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 adherence rates to treatment regimens for more than 90 percent.
Wisepill was successful because it stayed focused on the problem it wanted to solve. The history of Meditell, a Nigerian start-up specializing in health technologies which also hoped to improve medication adherence, is a more cautionary tale. The founders of Meditell developed software that would send text messages from hospitals to patients reminding them to take their medications. To generate interest in the product, the founders engaged in complex negotiations with insurance schemes and pharmaceutical companies. As Meditell tried to modify its product to meet the demands of these potential customers, it strayed from its original purpose and ultimately failed.
But it’s possible for African health-tech companies to grow if they start small, grow slowly, and respond to the customers they have. District Health Information Software (DHIS), which manages health data, has started recording patient information on its platform in three small districts in South Africa. As interest in the platform grew, DHIS programmers worked to extend its functionality and improve its usability in different settings. Today, the platform has been adopted in 73 countries.
African health tech entrepreneurs have shown an impressive knack for making the most of the resources at their disposal. Internet connectivity was not widespread in the mid-2000s, when the founders of Front line SMS wanted to improve communication between community health workers and hospital staff. Adapting to infrastructure constraints, they developed a program to transmit information via simple text messaging technology, which could also be used to send images of blood samples taken with a basic camera phone, allowing patients to be diagnosed without going to a clinic.
Less than a generation later, these constraints on African health tech companies are rapidly disappearing. Today, Africa has one of the fastest growing mobile and internet penetration rates. And the response to Covid-19 has stimulated innovation-and investment-in the area. Health technologies in Africa attracted more funding in 2020 than ever before.
African health tech start-ups can grow rapidly as the continent’s health systems often face similar challenges. A successful project in one country can easily be replicated in many others. For example, the telehealth pioneer mPharmafounded in Ghana, recently received funding set up 100 virtual clinics in seven new markets.
To encourage this kind of innovation and growth, African governments must develop and maintain policies that encourage innovation in health technologies. Above all, this means providing developers with the clear rules and stable operating environment they need to attract “patient” capital. And ministries of health should use their platforms to amplify the work that is being done.
For their part, start-up founders need to identify gaps and shortcomings that can be solved with new technologies. And to attract users and government support, African health technology companies must inevitably focus on solutions that make health technologies accessible and affordable, and continually work to improve user benefits.
The future of healthcare in Africa depends on innovation. Adopting new technologies can create opportunities for improvement health literacy and access to healthcare for all Africans. The pandemic has been a catalyst for the growth of health technologies on the continent. Now entrepreneurs and government need to keep the momentum going.