New technologies are redefining healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank, the region has the worst healthcare in the world, accounting for nearly a quarter of all disability and death caused by disease worldwide while only accounting for 1% of global health expenditure and 3% of the world’s health workers. Access to basic medical care is difficult due to poor infrastructure, but drones, apps, and computer-controlled vending machines can help remove some structural barriers and increase access to medicine.
Drones could be used to transport blood to tackle the high mortality rate among birthing women across the continent. Roughly 295,000 women died globally from preventable causes related to pregnancy in 2017, according to statistics from the World Health Organization; sub-Saharan Africa accounts for roughly two-thirds of these deaths. Amit Singh, head of drone operations, told CNN Business, “This was [in part] due to the fact that blood could not get to the patient fast enough, as traditional transport means take far too long due to poor road infrastructure and the distance that needed to be covered.”
The drone services are still undergoing tests with the Civil Aviation Authority. The South African National Blood Service (SANBS) program follows in the footsteps of Zipline, a successful Californian startup that delivers blood to remote parts of Rwanda and Ghana. Naa Adorkor Yawson, an executive at Zipline in Ghana, said that their service cuts delivery times down from hours or days to just minutes, which can make a huge difference in saving a life.
Even though infrastructure is lacking and in poor condition, the number of mobile internet users in Africa is growing quickly. GSMA, the mobile industry’s trade body, estimates that smartphone connections in the region reached 302 million in 2018, and that number is expected to rise to almost 700 million by 2025. Because of this, developers all over the continent are creating apps that enable remote access to medical advice and diagnosis. One of these apps is Hello Doctor, based in South Africa, which provides access to healthcare information, advice, and a call from a doctor for the equivalent of $3 a month. Clinical trials have started in Uganda for a system for diagnosing malaria. Matibabu has developed a tool that diagnoses malaria by shining a red beam of light on the skin to detect a malaria-causing parasite on the skin; the results can then be viewed through an app.
Despite the condition of sub-Saharan Africa’s infrastructure, there are several innovations in technology that are redefining healthcare in the region.