With Africa having a big share of the global malaria burden, technologists are developing new, cost-effective ways to detect the disease – minus the needle.
A needle, blood drawn and waiting time are the three aspects of a traditional malaria test.
In Kampala, Uganda, 24-year-old Brian Gitta has created a device that eliminates all of the above, in a first for malaria testing.
Matibabu, meaning ‘treatment’ in Swahili, tests malaria without drawing blood and can deliver results instantly.
The device, clipped on to a patient’s finger, beams a red light, and the results are available within a minute on a mobile phone linked to the device.
Growing up, Gitta had a passion for computers and went on to pursue a degree in computer science at the University of Makerere in Kampala.
Little did he know his eagerness and passion for tech would lead him to the medical field.
“I’m not one who grew up saying I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. I mean I’m not a doctor but I’m glad I can make a change in the medical realm from there,” Gitta tells FORBES AFRICA.
Gitta, who is often in and out of hospitals, now runs Matibabu, a company that takes its name from the device he created. He runs it with a team of six full-time staff. Although he is the CEO and founder of Matibabu, he prefers to be called a team leader.
It all started six years ago. In his first year at university, Gitta got together with his fellow students to change the way malaria was diagnosed. The prevalence of malaria continues to be high in Africa, rated as a top killer.
“I remember the first year when we started it, a lot of people were excited about what we were doing,” Gitta says.
Their project got them accolades such as the UN Women’s Empowerment Award in 2013.
“I think what we are doing has a lot of potential and we can definitely do something about this.”
The team decided to turn the project into a company with a social objective. But nothing prepared them for what was to come.
“As a bunch of people that didn’t know how to run a company, neither did we know how to do anything in terms of management; we actually had to learn on site, so we made a lot of mistakes in the beginning,” says Gitta.
But the more word got out about the company, the more support Gitta and his team received.
They got to learn more about strategic solutions, and managing development processes and the expectations of partners.
The prestigious 2018 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation they won in Kenya in June, have now helped them map the product for the world.
Gitta won prize money of $33,000. He will also receive support, funding, mentoring and business training from the Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom.
In 2016, he was on an MTV Base panel discussion with billionaire Bill Gates to share his views on the future of technology, innovation and development in Africa, with a group of African youth.
Gitta aims to create a low-cost malaria-testing device for medical institutions. Currently, the price is set at $100, but he hopes to lower the cost so it’s more accessible.
Gitta, himself once a victim to malaria, was frustrated with the healthcare system in Uganda. Blood tests had failed to diagnose his condition. He says this is one of the common problems malaria patients face. Another is people would rather self-diagnose than seek medical help.
“There’s a lot of self-medication because people tend to treat every fever as malaria and that creates additional strain…,” says Gitta.
But he believes with Matibabu, these issues may be eliminated.
Far from Kampala, in the South African capital of Pretoria, Professor Leo Braack at the University of Pretoria has been studying malaria for over five years.
“The new device developed by Gitta and his colleagues suggests multiple potential benefits not just for patients, [but] especially small children intimidated by the current need for a drop of blood,” says Braack.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), children under the age of five are at a high risk of malaria because they are more susceptible to infection, illness and death.
Braack believes this device could be the first of its kind in the world. However, that may provide a challenge for Matibabu to enter the market.
“The device still has a way to go before it will be widely accepted within the medical and scientific communities, and ultimately it will depend on cost-effectiveness, and particularly how accurate and sensitive the diagnosis is,” he says.
“If the device has a margin of error, it is better that it has false-positives than false-negatives. It is better to treat a false-positive person than to ignore a false-negative person who may go on to get seriously ill.
“The ideal is to get the device to reach as close to 100% accuracy and sensitivity, [it’s] very difficult to reach.”
Despite the immense strides taken in eradicating malaria, one of the biggest challenges is the mosquito’s resistance to insecticides and drugs.
Technology has introduced short-term solutions to combat outdoor mosquitoes.
Like Gitta, Dr Vinet Coetzee, a lecturer from the University of Pretoria, has been on the quest to identify affordable, non-invasive ways to detect malaria. Her method was tested in Nigeria on children.
“The device uses sensitive skin color measurements in the palm of the hand coupled with Artificial Intelligence to accurately detect whether a person has malaria or not,” says Coetzee.
According to Coetzee, sensitivity is the ability of the method to correctly identify people who have the disease. In this case, WHO recommends a sensitivity of 95%.
The University of Pretoria has filed a provisional patent for this method and Coetzee and her team are currently working on improving the device and its overall accuracy.
She was selected as a Next Einstein Forum fellow and member of the World Economic Forum Young Scientist Community for her work on the bloodless malaria detection device.
Dr Taneshka Kruger, who has been studying malaria since 2012, also believes technology can aid in the fight against malaria. Her focus in malaria research is malaria education and awareness, and public health, looking into new and modern ways to inform communities in both malaria-endemic and non-malaria areas through the use of social media and mobile apps.
“In order for malaria elimination to be achieved in sub-Saharan Africa and globally, new and innovative methods and strategies need to be developed that focus on all aspects of the disease,” she tells us.
“The institute [University of Pretoria], in collaboration with Travel with Flair, also developed the ‘Malaria Buddy’ app to inform mainly tourists about malaria. The app is continuously expanding with the aim to become a one-stop malaria information app,” she adds.
WHO is tracking the E2020 initiative in 21 countries identified as having the potential to eliminate the disease by the year 2020. Six of them are African – Algeria, Botswana, Cape Verde, Comoros, South Africa and Swaziland.
The African region carries a disproportionately high share of the global malaria burden.
In 2016, the region was home to 90% of malaria cases and 91% of malaria deaths. Therefore, a lot more effort and focus to eradicate malaria is necessary.
Despite only being in the field for a few years, Gitta is positive that with these technological enhancements, the fight against malaria will surely end.
“I think the strides toward elimination are happening although it will take a bit of time. But we just want to be a part of the journey as a whole,” says Gitta.
“I think the opportunity has been humungous and I don’t look at age as a definition of how to be an entrepreneur and that’s what makes this generation a big difference,” he says.
Hopefully, the new generation of tech tools they develop will also offer a big difference to malaria cure.
Enterprise And Traceable Tea From Tanzania
How this Tanzanian entrepreneur’s tea startup is weathering the Covid-19 storm.
When Tahira Nizari started her social enterprise Kazi Yetu in Tanzania’s bustling city, Dar es Salaam, with her business partner and husband, Hendrik Buermann, almost two years ago, she didn’t anticipate the sheer scope of her big idea.
But she also didn’t expect that, because of an employee’s exposure to the coronavirus in April, she and her entire team would be quarantining for two weeks, stalling work in a year that she had projected growth for her company. With the pandemic’s onset, she lost most of her customer base in Tanzania, albeit temporarily, and was forced to come up with a game-plan and quickly pivot.
“It’s been an economic recession overnight, more or less,” says Nizari.
With family roots in Tanzania, and armed with formal degrees from Dubai and Canada, and experience in economic inclusion in the non-profit development sector, Nizari aimed to set a benchmark in the agribusiness sector in Tanzania through value-addition and by employing local women in her factory based in Dar es Salaam to produce “a traceable product” for the local and international market.
“Right now, tea is just exported in bulk completely (from Tanzania) and then all the jobs thereafter in that value chain are done abroad. So what we said was ‘let’s redistribute that job creation, let’s bring it back to Tanzania and let’s create a facility in which we can hire workers all locally and have a product that is 100% made in Tanzania’,” says Nizari. After extensive research in multiple target markets, both locally and abroad, building relationships with 250 Tanzanian farmers, setting up a factory exclusively employing local and previously-unemployed women, and many iterations of the seven blends of its flagship Tanzania Tea Collection using local flavors and spices, Kazi Yetu was ready to expand its scope in 2020.
“We were following our business plan… but we were really cautious and risk-averse (in 2018 and 2019). And then, we said, ‘you know what, when 2020 hits, it’s going to be growth’.”
Nizari was planning on reaching up to 4,000 farmers, buy machinery from China, grow the local B2B customer base, permanently employ all the women at the factory and begin to export on a larger scale after the launch of Kazi Yetu’s online store.
But when the coronavirus hit the local and international markets, things started looking very bleak, especially since Kazi Yetu is currently fully self-funded.
Not only did it lose almost all of its monthly income, but the farmers stopped meeting in groups for the training, so the supply chain was disrupted.
“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution.”
The factory also had to introduce safety protocols for employees at work and at home, as well as reduce the number of people working at any given time in order to adhere to social distancing.
An employee’s father also died of the coronavirus, which forced Nizari to ask everyone involved with Kazi Yetu to quarantine at home for 14 days.
“So what we said was, ‘look, we don’t want to risk their safety, but we also don’t want to risk their economic well-being’. So we just paid all of them their full-time salary,” says Nizari.
“Generally, our operational costs have been really hard to cover right now… but it’s okay, because it made us pivot.”
It inspired Nizari to expedite Kazi Yetu’s plans to export, kickstart the online store sooner than anticipated and build up stock to send to Germany, rather than just focus on the Tanzanian market, which is temporarily quite small. Exporting has been an issue, given limited shipping at the moment, but the European market proved to be a pleasant surprise for Nizari.
“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution,” she says.
Slowly, the factory is moving back to normal operations and Nizari is trying her best to ensure a steady income for the employees. Kazi Yetu is also now available on local delivery applications in Tanzania, so people can order tea to their doorsteps.
Looking ahead, Nizari hopes to scale up exporting through the online store and retailers, whether in Europe, or also in markets like South Africa where products from sub-Saharan Africa are popular, and North America where innovative African products are in demand.
“We want our product to be competing with products made in Europe, and for example, Sri Lankan tea, Indian tea and Chinese tea. We want Tanzanian products to be well-regarded,” she adds.
Since the teas are traceable, which is a unique selling point, Kazi Yetu is also working on an app that uses blockchain to allow customers to access data on the tea they purchase, from the farm level, all the way to their cups. This way, they will know first-hand the impact the product has.
In addition, Nizari is working on a farm-hub model to build Kazi Yetu’s supply chain by helping them produce better raw products through a no-interest investment that can be paid back with their final product over time.
“The whole ‘economy versus safety’ debate… it’s something we have to think about moving forward… You can’t just operate as a business that makes money, you have to think about… the well-being of your workplace, the well-being of everyone in your supply chain… And I think this is where social enterprises really come in,” Nizari adds.
And a hot cup of locally-produced tea can certainly help take forward any such deliberations.
– By Inaara Gangji
Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’
Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.
With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.
The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.
The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.
But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.
Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.
But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.
“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.
On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.
Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.
“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.
According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.
“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.
Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.
Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.
All For Grooming Future Leaders
Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.
He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.
Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.
“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.
He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.
Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.
“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”
Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.
“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.
Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.
Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.
“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.
But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.
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