Advancing Health Care in Africa Through Engineering

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March 9, 2021 6 min read

The state of healthcare in Africa demands attention on a human level, but it is also at the heart of the continent’s economic problems. By some estimates, infectious diseases cost Africa $2.4 trillion a year in lost productivity. African economies need to improve so that more healthcare funding will be available, but the relative lack of healthcare services is holding the economy back.

Lost productivity takes a heavy toll in the short term, but inadequate healthcare also harms Africa in the long term. Lack of medical attention causes the death of hundreds of thousands of children, and prevents millions more from achieving their full educational potential. Breaking out of this cycle will require innovative, low-cost, and high efficiency solutions that are appropriate for Africa — which will require African engineers.

The Role of Engineers in Supporting Healthcare in Africa

Africa’s shortage of engineers impacts healthcare in more ways than most people realize. Engineering expertise is needed for key infrastructure like roads, electrical grids, and communications technology which are essential to effective healthcare, as well as the construction and maintenance of healthcare and pharmaceutical facilities.

All of this is related to healthcare systems as we currently understand them, but African engineers can actually have a much bigger impact than this. More than just building conventional hospitals and clinics, engineers can develop innovative solutions to reimagine the structure of health care. Healthcare systems of the future will not look like those of the past, and the future of healthcare in Africa may look different than in other parts of the world.

Ingenuity and innovation are both necessary to improve Africa’s healthcare sector, because in many parts of Africa, the resources are not there to take a conventional approach to healthcare. This is not all bad — it is an opportunity for engineers to rise to the challenge of developing high efficiency solutions.

Engineering Medical Technology for African Contexts

Africa: A Future Leader in Medical Innovation

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. The need for novel healthcare solutions in Africa may actually have the potential to make the continent a leader in healthcare innovation.

For example, in response to the COVID pandemic, chemical engineers in Cote d’Ivoire developed a method to use byproducts from cashew farming to produce sanitizing gel.

A Cameroonian engineer designed the CardioPad, a device that can send cardiological data from remote areas to cardiologists. This device has also been marketed outside of Africa, which highlights the potential for African products to contribute to the development of healthcare solutions worldwide.

Africa is also home to Zipline, the world’s first UAV based medical delivery service. The service uses drones to deliver medication and even blood for transfusions to rural areas. The project is currently active in Ghana and Rwanda, and allows for medical supplies to be delivered more quickly and cheaply than ever before.

There are many other opportunities like these for entrepreneurs to capitalize on. There’s a strong need for medical devices that are well suited to the African climate and conditions; dust, heat, humidity, and variable electrical supply all have to be taken into consideration. Since most of Engineer Africa’s members are originally from Africa, they understand the challenges of African contexts. They can also communicate effectively to assist high impact projects across the continent.

Medical Apps

Mobile apps are providing many opportunities for medical care in Africa to leapfrog legacy infrastructure. In the past, a doctor in a rural clinic might have to travel for hours in a 4 wheel drive vehicle to the nearest city to get supplies, or wait for days for a delivery. In many cases, this could mean the difference between life and death. Now, it’s increasingly possible for a village doctor to simply place a request on his phone, and have supplies delivered within an hour.

Many other apps are changing the medical landscape of the continent. Some apps enable remote consultations with doctors where patients can receive prescriptions. Others have emerged to fight counterfeit medication, a rampant problem across Africa.

Engineer Africa’s members include a growing number of software engineers who are enthusiastic about advising and assisting in the development of software that can improve the state of healthcare in Africa.

Eliminating the Root Causes of Disease

Preventing disease transmission is even better than effective treatment of diseases.

A huge number of infectious diseases can be prevented by access to clean water and improved sanitation. Engineer Africa’s flood prevention initiative is one such example. Flooding caused by overloaded urban infrastructure causes a large number of infections — in some cases, flooding can even cause cholera outbreaks.

Our affordable housing initiative is also intended to improve health conditions. Poor ventilation and unsanitary housing are also responsible for many infections, especially in Africa’s fast-growing slums and informal urban settlements.

Engineers of the African Diaspora: A Catalyst for Innovation

With Africa’s youthful, bright, and energetic population, innovation is one of the continent’s greatest natural resources, and we’re already seeing signs of this potential in the medical sector. The guidance of experienced African engineers from the diaspora can act as a catalyst to amplify this momentum, providing youth and entrepreneurs with the know-how they need to solve real problems.

As an organization, Engineer Africa is committed to cultivating an environment conducive to the success of African entrepreneurs, materially, intellectually, and emotionally.

● Materially, we are actively involved in initiatives to improve infrastructure, like our Wireless Mesh Project and Road Impact Factor Aggregation projects.

● Intellectually, our web platform is designed to connect experienced engineers from the diaspora with startups and development projects in Africa

● Emotionally, we provide a strong and welcoming community to encourage and support our members and partners on the road to success.

Engineer Africa recently published a book that goes into detail on the ways we are working to bring value to Africa, including healthcare.

To learn more about the ways that Engineer Africa is working to improve healthcare in Africa (and many other sectors), you can download our book for free here.

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