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.
What Will It Take To Close The Funding Gap For Black Female Founders?
If you’ve heard the statistics once, you’ve probably heard them a thousand times: Of the nearly $100 billion in venture funding that goes to entrepreneurs in America, less than 3% goes to female founders and just 0.2% goes to black female founders.
There’s a growing consensus that venture capital’s race problem needs to be fixed.What’s less clear is precisely how to start closing the massive gulf. And at the inaugural Black Women Raise conference in Manhattan on Friday, a gathering of some 80 black female founders, a series of candid conversations laid bare the frustrations around the lack of an obvious path forward. In several raw moments of interchange, however, some answers started to emerge.
Investors “could ask different questions,” Charles Hudson, founder and managing partner of Precursor Ventures, said during a panel conversation with BBG’s Susan Lyne, First Round Capital’s Hayley Barna, and Female Founder’s Fund Sutian Dong. “There are all these questions—‘Well, do you think she can recruit? Do you think she can hire?’—I know what’s behind that question.
It’s ‘Do you think she can get people to work for her because she’s a black woman?’ And people ask these, what on the surface sound like innocent enough legitimate questions about investments, but they’re not innocent. They’re loaded. And you learn a lot by the questions people ask.”
Despite the existence (and, arguably, preponderance) of these loaded questions, Hudson and the others cautioned the entrepreneurs in the room against becoming disillusioned with the traditional venture capital community. Instead, they said, minority founders should prioritize investors who have a track record of investing in entrepreneurs who look like them.
“Vet investors up front. Don’t let them waste your time only to give you a half-ass answer after you spend an hour with them or even two weeks later,” said Barna, who started her venture capital career after successfully cofounding e-commerce darling Birch Box. “Just ask, ‘Is this in your sweet spot?’”
Dong noted that investors should be self-monitoring for where they’re over- and under-indexing, too. “We’ve said we don’t like the ratio of founders in our portfolio. About half are nonwhite, but only two are African-American. So we asked our network who we should be talking to,” she said.
It can be hard, in an open and on-the-record forum, to ask the hard questions about investing in underrepresented founders—much less to receive forthright answers to those questions—but to the credit of the Black Women Raise attendees, no one shied away from speaking about the reality of her experience as a founder of color.
“Everyone talks about the ‘friends and family round.’ I raised $63,000; I am the friends and family round,” quipped Star Cunningham, founder and CEO of health management platform 4D Healthware. But underpinning her self-funding, Cunningham continued, was a lack of capital access. “I have debt, because I had to get it, because no one wanted to give me any money. So what are you, as investors, going to do to look at our companies differently?”
Barna’s reply: Don’t be afraid to talk about your distance traveled. “The same stories about people getting straight A’s from Ivy League schools isn’t what gets us fired up; it’s instead hearing about how someone put themselves through med school from driving an ambulance,” she said. “You might think that you’re not supposed to talk about your life story, but I think it’s an important data point in helping [investors] make the right decision.”
This isn’t to say that a little bit of information and clever storytelling will fix the funding gap for founders of color. Viola Llewellyn, cofounder of African fintech platform Ovamba, pointed out as much, saying that many of the investors she’s come across don’t seem interested in asking the questions that lead to the sorts of decisions Barna is referencing.
“Here’s the problem: No one gets punished intellectually, emotionally, or financially for saying no to black women or to Africans. You will instead be congratulated if you don’t make the ‘foolish mistake’ of investing in something that doesn’t fit into the preconceived ideas of what success is,” Llewellyn said to Hudson, Lyne, Barna and Dong.
“At what point do we find a way to tell the story of the fool that said no?” she continued, to applause from the room.
Hudson waited a beat, and responded with empathy.
“There’s a million reasons [for investors] to say no, but until we have more success stories, I think there’s always an easy out for people to say, ‘No one has proven to me that investing in this way and this type of person works out.’ It’s intellectually lazy and it’s wrong,” he said. “You have every right to be angry.”
Angry, yes, but also motivated. Among the clearest takeaways from the conversation is that one of the best ways to change the system is to start from within. In Silicon Valley and Arlan Hamilton parlance, fight pattern-matching with pattern-matching.
“More black women need to control capital, in whatever form that may be,” Dong said. “More black women need to be controlling capital to put that into companies run by black female founders.”
Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent
The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.
The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.
Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.
“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.
The continent has a special place in his heart.
The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.
“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.
Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.
He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.
The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.
Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.
Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.
This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.
Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.
Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.
“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri.
Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.
Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.
“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.
“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.
Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.
It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.
Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron
Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.
cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.
Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.
He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.
Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”
He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.
In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.
Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.
But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.
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