Innovation out of necessity has spurred some groundbreaking solutions to Africa’s problems


For 16 years Dr Valentin Agon has been working on a way to minimise the death toll of malaria, which the World Health Organisation said killed some 305,000 children in Africa under the age of five in 2015 alone.

His solution Api-Palu is made from a plant extract, which is both cheaper and more effective than pharmaceutical medicines currently on the market. Last week Agon, from Benin, won the US$100,000 2016 Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA). The IPA, like its name says, rewards African innovation and this year solutions to combat malaria and HIV/Aids won the top three prizes in the five-year-old competition at its awards ceremony in Gaborone, Botswana.

Along with Agon’s medication another ground-breaking solution came from Nigeria’s Dr Eddy Agbo, who has invented a 25-minute test for malaria using urine and a system similar to a pregnancy test. Until now malaria tests involved expensive tests that involve drawing blood and waiting days for a result that has to be conducted by medical experts. The WHO estimates that 88% of the 214m malaria deaths in 2015 were in Africa.

“Today in many parts of Africa, most people equate fever with malaria. We know that the cases of malaria are less than 50% of incidences [of fever]. Just assuming the fever is malaria is like passing the coin,” Agbo told me after he won the IPA’s $25,000 special prize for social impact. “It’s just as simple as ABC,” he said of his test which costs a mere $2 each.

“We can now, with this award, begin to push the innovation to other countries, to other Africans who really need this [test]to confirm if their fever is due to malaria. We want to move away from the idea that all fevers are due to malaria.”

Referring the high infant mortality cause by malaria, a jubilant French-speaking Agon told me: “We should fight this disease. This is an African innovation for fighting malaria. It’s an African solution, made in Africa, by Africans, for Africans. And for the world.”

This is the persistent theme about African innovation in general and particularly the IPA, which is organised by the African Innovation Foundation (AIF)

“A product for malaria [prevention]coming from Africa for Africans, this is my dream,” AIF founder Jean Claude Bastos de Morais told me. “My dream come true, because malaria is one the biggest killers in Africa and finding a solution which is based on natural product is just what I have been dreaming about.”

Of Agbo’s Urine Test for Malaria, the Swiss-Angolan said: “You have a lot of people dying because they don’t get access to these tests. It costs nothing… $2 [per test]. This is accessible for everybody. With urine you are able to see if you have malaria or not. Imagine this impact. It’s fantastic.”

The $25,000 IPA second prize went to Capetonian Dr Imogen Wright for her work on drug-resistance in antiretroviral drugs used to combat HIV/Aids. “It’s so important to do drug-resistance testing because it prevents the virus from spreading,” Wright told me. “People take drugs that they are resistant to and those resistant strains tend to grow in their body, and those are the ones that are transmitted. So we make more drug-resistance by not doing tests.”

The 10 IPA finalists – from 985 applications – all received $5,000 prize money, and included several South Africans. Dr Kit Vaughn has invented a breast-cancer scanning device that uses both digital mammography and ultrasound to check for the disease at the same time.

Pretoria’s Andre Nel devised Green Tower, an off-grid water heating and air conditioning solution that can save 90% of electricity consumption. Johan Theron’s PowerGuard calculate the maximum energy needed by a home or business, therefore helping to reduce power needed during peak times.

They are all African innovation at its finest.

This column first appeared on Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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