Guest post by: Kaakpema Yelpaala, Founder and CEO of access.mobile. Recipient of 2014 4Afrika Innovation Grant

 Would you ever consider strapping a small sensor to your finger? One that connects to your phone and detects your malaria status, via an app?

Believe it or not, this technology exists. It was developed by the Ugandan Team Code 8 at last year’s Imagine Cup. The app helps improve people’s healthcare and saves lives, all through the power of technology.

When I founded access.mobile in 2011 as a mobile and web-based technology provider for data collection, client communication and decision support, I wanted to focus on the healthcare sector. Our first area of work was in the healthcare sector in Uganda, where we helped 70 private clinics better manage data collection processes related to service delivery, all through a mobile application and web-based solution called am•health. We are also rolling out ClinicCommunicatorTM, a web application that offers health clinics an easy way to manage patient communication and care, including SMS and email-based appointment reminders, medication compliance and patient surveys.

I believe that there are big opportunities at the intersection of health and technology in Africa.  At the heart of the matter is to facilitate access to quality healthcare services for consumers, and to find ways for the public and private sector to work together to improve health standards and facilitate technology adoption in high impact ways.

I was recently invited to attend a forum in Washington, DC, on key priorities for investing in global health. At the event, entitled “Global Health Best Buys”, we discussed what sound investments and best-practices in global health should look like. Each panelist came from a different expertise, with unique experiences and interests. It was a great opportunity for me to emphasise the growing role of the private health sector in sub-Saharan Africa. I was also able to highlight how technology-driven, private investments in health can increase access to quality healthcare and professionalism in the private health sector, while stimulating innovation. Here is some of what I shared with the panel.

 From left to right: Amanda Glassman, Director of Global Health Policy, Center for Global Development; Karl Hoffman, CEO, Population Services International (PSI); Karen Cavanaugh, Director, Office of Health Systems, USAID; Kaakpema Yelpaala, CEO & Founder, access.mobile, Inc. (Photo Credit: Center for Global Development, Washington, DC). The event convened experts from implementing agencies, governments, researcher institutions, and the private sector to discuss and debate what makes a “best buy” in global health. It was held in partnership with PSI, PATH, and Devex and the program was also supported by a grant from Merck, through its Merck for Mothers Program.

The state of the Private Health Sector in sub-Saharan Africa

The healthcare sector in sub-Saharan Africa is going through an exciting and pivotal time. According to the International Finance Corporation, approximately $16.7 billion was spent on health in sub-Saharan Africa in 2005. 60% of that was private and mainly out-of-pocket spending by individuals. In the last decade, such spending has continued to increase dramatically, driven, in many cases, by a growing middle-class in several African countries. According to a report by McKinsey and Company, by 2016 the market for healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa will be worth $35 billion.

People are looking for quality healthcare services in their own countries. If they have a serious health issue, they want to have quality options in their own market. They don’t want to travel to another country to get the care they need. In January 2014, while traveling to the international airport in Nairobi, I saw a massive billboard by a leading private hospital. It said that people in Kenya no longer need to leave Nairobi to receive international standard medical care. It’s quite telling that the message of the billboard is one of the last major advertisements before departing Nairobi.

Innovators are rising to the challenge and are developing locally-relevant solutions in their markets, which are helping to bring the healthcare services people need. For Africa to truly reap the full benefits of technology in healthcare, there needs to be an enabling environment for entrepreneurs, developers, technologists and medical professionals. Private and public investment is key to support innovation in the health sector in Africa.


Some tips for startups in the healthcare sector

There are many opportunities to meet local needs in Africa through the creative use of technology in healthcare. If you want to hear a few of my ideas on this topic, take a look at my interview with Devex – the leading international development news source – below.

  

 

The most important thing for startups to remember is that products which scale over time – especially technology products – must change, evolve and adapt to user needs. In the world of donor-funded projects in Africa, the challenge I see is that technology initiatives get locked in to a fixed set of deliverables. They don’t adapt to new information easily. At access.mobile, we believe that being nimble and flexible is at the centre of building context-appropriate, user-centred technologies.  Listening to your market allows you to adapt to new feedback from clients and users, and build meaningful and scalable solutions.

Africa’s adoption of products and services looks different to the rest of the world. The African market is highly dynamic, so enterprises need to give themselves the flexibility to experiment. Experimentation is, after all, critical to the success of any new approach to solving big challenges. access.mobile is grateful to have won one of the first Microsoft 4Afrika innovation grants, which is helping us design, test and scale tailored solutions for our target markets in Africa. We look forward to watching the health sector in Africa grow, and to also playing a role in this growth.

To learn more about access.mobile and our work with Microsoft 4Afrika, you can take a look at my interview with Devex below: