Is The Timing Right for Digital Health Innovations in Africa?


Hamza Asumah, MD

The discussions on digital health innovations on the African continent have been somewhat muddled regarding its importance.  Let me start by stating that innovations in digital health are long overdue on the African continent, and the sooner we rectify this oversight, the greater our chances of reintegrating them into our entrepreneurial opportunities. 

Inventions, especially technology-oriented entrepreneurial enterprises, rely heavily on timing to determine their success or failure. That applies especially to sensitive industries like healthcare and finance. In recent years, however, there has been a rise in technology adoption across the continent.

Photo by Azickia

The failed digital health projects in Africa have revealed key business factors and demographics which clearly demonstrate that Africa is ready for a digital health revolution, and now could be the right time to launch your digital health innovation. Putting them all together, let’s have a look:

First of all, the data supports this. Today, there are more than 1.2 million kilometers of Internet cables spanning the ocean floors, while just 20 years ago, Africa was totally disconnected. People who did have access—via satellite Internet—paid ten times as much as others who did not.

Nigeria had more than 154 million internet users in December 2020, according to statista.com, the largest figure in Africa. Egypt, on the other hand, came in second with 54.74 million users. Mobile devices accounted for the bulk of web traffic in Africa’s biggest digital markets; in Nigeria, one of the world’s most populous countries, cellphones accounted for 74% of web traffic, while PC devices accounted for around 24%. This is partly because mobile connections are far less expensive and do not require the infrastructure that typical desktop PCs with fixed-line internet connections do.

Photo by HealthcareInsights

This isn’t just a Nigerian story; it’s a story that can be found in numerous developing African countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Northern Africa, 200 million users made 27.55 billion mobile money transactions in 2020, accounting for 66.5 percent of all transactions worldwide. This demonstrates the African continent’s commitment to embracing digital financial transactions.

This financial sector success indicates that, if carefully redesigned, other sectors can have the same acceptance of digital service delivery alternatives. According to geopoll.com, more than 90% of the population in SSA was covered by 2G networks by the end of 2017, while six new 4G networks were introduced in the first half of 2018.

GSMA believes that there are currently 120 such networks in the region, and they claim that these new networks, along with the market for lower-cost smartphones, are aiding in the region’s shift to mobile broadband. According to future forecasts, 3G is expected to account for 60% of all mobile connections by 2025.

Photo by Emag

Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic is nature’s way of instilling that worldview in us. This was the moment when the entire world came to a halt, and every healthcare system was seen battling to fulfill the requirements of the numerous sick people.

Physical hospital space was no longer sufficient to accommodate everyone who required medical assistance. What was nature attempting to communicate to us? This demonstrated that no physical facility was equipped to house everyone if a large percentage of a community required medical attention at the same time.

Beyond these physical locations, there were digital ones that were just as successful. Individuals received high-quality healthcare while remaining as safe as possible in the comfort of their own homes. Unfortunately, in Africa, there are no digital healthcare platforms that can comprehensively provide this service. As a result, existing platforms such as WhatsApp have been modified to provide digital health services. There are some very promising platforms available for use but non is well structured to comprehensively provide top-notch services to patients. Digital health platforms are still needed now and will continue to be needed in the future. Why don’t you make the most of this opportunity?

Thirdly, because we have a restricted picture of the problem, our efforts to improve healthcare accessibility have been unsuccessful. The emphasis has been on providing physical structures without the necessary logistics to connect the patient to these structures. Consider these physical structures as computer hardware that need software (digitization) to be complete.

Photo by teletotpediatrics

Why should healthcare be any different? Other industries (such as finance) are becoming increasingly digital. If a person can trust a gadget that manages his finances, he or she may also trust his or her health. You can be the next Steve Jobs in healthcare if I happen to be right

Several attempts have been made to break into the use of technology to enhance healthcare in Africa, and I have been the victim of several of these attempts. In my attempts to introduce improvements that were not approved due to poor timing, I have lost a great deal of money. All of my healthcare discoveries are still quite viable today. Do you think the timing is right now for such innovations to be launched or relaunched in healthcare? Do you know any of such platforms that have been tested and launched? What has been your experience as an innovator and a user?


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