The COVID-19 pandemic has galvanized the development of more than 120 health technology innovations that have been piloted or adopted in Africa, a new World Health Organization (WHO) analysis finds.
The study of 1000 new or modifications of existing technologies that have been developed worldwide to target different areas of the COVID-19 response finds that Africa accounts for 12.8 percent of the innovations. The response areas include surveillance, contact tracing, community engagement, treatment, laboratory systems and infection, prevention and control.
In Africa, 57.8 percent of the technologies were ICT-driven, 25 percent were based on 3D printing and 10.9 percent were robotics. The ICT-based innovations include WhatsApp Chatbots in South Africa, self-diagnostic tools in Angola, contact tracing apps in Ghana and mobile health information tools in Nigeria. The countries with the most innovations were South Africa (13 percent), Kenya (10 percent), Nigeria (8 percent) and Rwanda (6 percent).
“COVID-19 is one of the most serious health challenges in a generation, but it is also an opportunity to drive forward innovation, ingenuity and entrepreneurship in life-saving health technologies,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “It’s great to see the youthful energy of the continent fired up to fight COVID-19. Solar-powered automatic handwashing tools, mobile applications that build on Africa’s rapidly growing connectivity. These home-grown innovations are uniquely adapted to the African context.”
According to the World Intellectual Property Organization the more developed an economy is the more it innovates and vice versa, but some economies break this pattern by performing better or worse than predicted. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the largest number of economies performing above expectations for their level of development. While this is encouraging, investment is vital to further spark innovation on the continent. A study by the World Bank group reports that African countries, at around 0.01 percent per capita, invest far less in innovation than developed countries and the continent is not living up to its potential.
“The pandemic has put a fresh impetus on the need to invest in innovation and to put the right policies and strategic frameworks in place to unleash African ingenuity on the world,” said Dr Moeti. “We know that investing in innovation yields huge dividends. With COVID-19 and other health threats part of our daily life, there’s no time to waste in creating the right environment for African innovators to flourish.”
WHO recommends greater investment in ICT infrastructure, robotics, artificial intelligence, drones and mechatronics as well as putting the right policies in place to boost creativity and entrepreneurship and to bolster university-led research.
Earlier this year, all 47 African Member-States in the WHO African Region adopted a WHO strategy for scaling up health innovations in Africa. By 2023, 80 percent of all Member States agreed to perform needs assessments to identify critical gaps in their health systems and will have established coordination mechanisms to scale up innovations.
Seventy-five percent will have developed policies and incentive frameworks, and half will have developed analytical tools to assess the economic and social impact of innovations.
The WHO Regional Office for Africa has created a global database of innovations to share knowledge, ideas and successes, as well as set up a COVID-19 technology access pool to share intellectual property and data.
The inaugural WHO health innovation challenge, which aimed to tackle some of the most pressing health needs of the world’s most vulnerable populations, included 2400 entries, including from 44 African countries.