For 16 years Dr Valentin Agon has worked to find a way to minimise the death toll from malaria. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that in 2015, in Africa, the disease killed more than 300,000 children under the age of five.
His solution, called Api-Palu, is made from a plant extract, and is cheaper and said to be more effective than rival pharmaceutical medicines.
Last week Agon, from Benin, won the US$100,000 2016 Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA). The IPA, as its name suggests, rewards African innovation. This year, ideas to combat malaria and HIV/Aids won the top three prizes in the five-year-old competition when its awards ceremony was held in Gaborone, Botswana.
Along with Agon’s medication, another ground-breaking solution came from Nigeria’s Dr Eddy Agbo, who invented a 25-minute test for malaria. It allows a urine sample to be tested for traces of the disease.
Until now malaria tests could be done only by drawing blood and in some parts of the continent this could take days to yield a result.
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,” Agbo told me after he won the IPA’s $25,000 special prize for social impact. “We know that the cases of malaria are less than 50% of incidences [of fever]. Just assuming the fever is malaria is like flipping a coin.”
His tests cost a mere $2 each, making them affordable and practical.
“We can now, with this award, begin to push the innovation to other countries. We want to move away from the idea that all fever is caused by malaria,” he says.
Referring to the high rate of infant mortality attributed to malaria, 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 theme around which the IPA, which is organised by the African Innovation Foundation (AIF), is structured.
“A product for malaria [prevention] coming from Africa for Africans, this is my dream,” AIF founder Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais told me.
“Malaria is one of the biggest killers in Africa and finding a solution which is based on a 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. Imagine this impact. It’s fantastic.”
The $25,000 IPA second prize was awarded to Capetonian Dr Imogen Wright, cofounder of Hyrax Biosciences, for her work on drug resistance in the use of antiretroviral drugs for people with 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 bodies.”
By failing to conduct tests to determine their resistance, patients become even more drug-resistant, she says, making it harder to treat them.
The 10 IPA finalists — distilled from 985 applications — each received $5,000 in prize money. The list included several South Africans.
Dr Kit Vaughan invented a breast-cancer scanning device that uses digital mammography as well as ultrasound technology.
Pretoria’s Andre Nel devised Green Tower, an off-grid water heating and air conditioning solution that can save 90% of electricity consumption (see Fox June 17 2016).
Johan Theron’s PowerGuard calculates the maximum energy needed by a home or business, helping to reduce power needed during peak times.
These inventors display African innovation at its finest.