Oluwasoga Oni. Picture: Supplied
Oluwasoga Oni. Picture: Supplied

Innovative health start-ups in Africa are receiving the attention they deserve, now that Covid-19 is wreaking havoc with health-care facilities and systems on the continent.

One example of this is Vula Mobile, an app developed by local medical doctor William Mapham. The platform, which was created in 2014, connects primary health-care workers in SA with medical professionals and specialists. Its database has expanded significantly since Covid-19 hit: it had 10,000 professionals on its network early in 2020, and it grew to 13,000 during the lockdown.

Mapham tells the FM that Vula puts primary health-care workers directly in touch with on-call specialists, making the referral process quicker than using a phone.

He says the use of technology in health has grown and highlighted work that start-ups like Vula have been doing for years.

Vula makes most of its money through advertising. The traditional way of getting the word out about new developments, products and services for such health professionals has been through medical journals and conferences. But Mapham says the Vula database allows advertisers to promote products to a targeted audience, which has become a major value proposition for the platform.

William Mapham. Picture: Supplied
William Mapham. Picture: Supplied

Vula has also received outside funding. Access to money has been difficult for African start-ups for a long time, but this has been made worse by the effects of Covid-19.

According to the Harambe Entrepreneurship Alliance network, the global pandemic has had far-reaching effects for African start-ups, as between 70% and 80% of those not backed by venture capital face possible closure due to the economic crisis. However, health start-ups such as Vula have been able to capitalise on the pandemic.

"Covid-19 did us some favours with regard to trying to raise funding," Mapham says. Vula is trying to raise $2m after having received an investment from US venture philanthropy fund the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation in 2019. Much of its funding has been in dollars, and Mapham would like to have investment from African players in future.

Vula primarily operates in SA, but its technology is being used in Lesotho, Botswana, Ethiopia, Australia, Sweden and Sri Lanka.

The app also generates revenues from the data it collects and analyses, and has a contract with the Western Cape to create and manage the province’s referral system.

In response to the pandemic Vula now links health workers with Covid-19 specialists to enable access to the latest information.

In Nigeria, Oluwasoga Oni and his team are building and operating tech-backed diagnostics facilities in underserved neighbourhoods through a start-up called MDaaS. This helps lower-income patients identify health issues earlier and gain access to medical specialists and treatment options.

"Our centres offer radiology (including ultrasound and X-ray), cardiology and pathology services," Oni tells the FM. And MDaaS is able to deliver low prices thanks to its unique supply chain, "which makes the setting up of new facilities significantly cheaper", and puts the focus on quality of the service and high-volume operations.

Vula and MDaaS fill the gaps on a continent where access to quality health services is still a constant battle, particularly for low-income communities.

Mapham’s experience of the challenges facing health workers during his work in rural Swaziland informed his decision to take on the challenge of reforming the patient referral systems. At the time the primary challenges were a lack of specialist knowledge and unnecessary referrals to tertiary hospitals, he says.

Picture: 123RF/aurielaki
Picture: 123RF/aurielaki

Oni’s aim was to improve access to medical testing. "For modern medicine to be effective and cost-efficient, patients and their caregivers require access to high-quality diagnostics," he says. "Without proper diagnostics, clinicians treat symptoms, making educated guesses about the potential causes and extent of observable disease."

He says that without a diagnosis clinicians will tend to prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics, basic painkillers and other generic treatments. This limits patient outcomes and distorts national statistics relied upon by policymakers.

But in the midst of a pandemic that has seriously disrupted global economies, is it still possible to build a start-up from scratch without funding, or is venture capital now a must for tech-based enterprises?

Oni believes it is possible to start from scratch, even if it’s not easy. MDaaS and Vula are both part of the Harambe network, which recently launched $1m in funding for African networks affected by the economic downturn.

Mapham says having a network such as Harambe, where an SA business can interact with entrepreneurs across the continent, helps the entrepreneurs to come up with ways they can use their own technology to tackle problems in the local market, especially in the medical industry.

The role of technology in addressing health-care challenges looks set to grow.

Even some large technology players acknowledge that helping start-ups focus on addressing single aspects of the system will have a positive impact overall. Lillian Barnard, MD at Microsoft SA, says: "We believe partners make more possible," pointing to start-ups such as Mint Group and Phulukisa Health Solutions, which have developed Covid.ai, a screening and testing app to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The mobile app allows health-care workers to screen for the disease and register citizens in the field using facial recognition, geotagging and one-on-one citizen mapping.

One solution and start-up at a time, health-care delivery in Africa has the potential for a turnaround, all thanks to technology.

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