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Research hubs will harness innovation to advance African data science discoveries

September / October 2020 | Volume 19, Number 5

Medical worker examines young child who is sitting on an examining table in an indoor clinic setting, computer in foreground.
Photo courtesy of Mama-Ope

Recent African tech innovations include this tool for diagnosing
pneumonia in children. It was a project of the business incubator
Villgro Kenya, founded by Dr. Robert Karanja, who spoke at the
DS-I Africa conference.

By Susan Scutti

At the heart of the Harnessing Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa (DS-I Africa) project are research hubs that are intended to become recognized centers of excellence in data science fields, and advance affordable and scalable solutions to improve health. One conference session was devoted to a discussion of how innovation can be sparked and channeled to achieve maximum impact.

The best way to understand innovation is to think of it as the antithesis of research, according to Dr. Robert Karanja, co-founder of Villgro Kenya, an investment company. If the goal of the scientific process is a product, then it is the “process called innovation” that is able to take new knowledge discovered through research and “create money at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Intellectual property in itself is not an end tool.” The process of innovation always includes three partners, explained Karanja. The first is government, which sets the agenda and sets the rules and regulations. Next is academia, which generates new knowledge and solves problems based on its understanding of the challenges in the health system. Finally, the private sector is the partner capable of “flipping” a hurdle into “an opportunity for investment, for creating jobs, for creating wealth, for being able to achieve better health care,” he said.

Africa has a huge advantage compared to other nations because it can exploit the “fourth industrial revolution” in faster and cheaper ways than high-income countries that are already invested in older technologies, Karanja added.

When industry participates in academic research, they are “more likely to be invested in seeing the outputs,” observed Dr. Andrea Gobin, director of invention education at Rice University. She suggested academic researchers attract industry’s interest by reaching out at multiple stages of a project and by hosting design competitions, where students can present “typical working prototypes” and display their problem-solving skills to a corporate audience. Working directly with industry, students learn the skillsets required in the marketplace, noted Gobin.

Teaching approaches also must be modernized, said Dr. Gregory Gamula of Malawi Polytechnic. Until recently, engineering education was much too old-fashioned. An “all-knowing teacher” would stand before “students who are ignorant and deliver everything that he has acquired and the students are just listening,” he said. Today, engineering education relies on more interactive ways of transferring knowledge to students. "We are talking about emphasizing active learning. We are talking about issues of prototyping and, to enhance and facilitate this, we've got a design studio that has been established at the Polytechnic, which is a space that is allowing both students and faculty just to come out and prototype or design things, and just exercise innovative imaginations and powers.”

This newer style of education suits Malawi’s growing need for low-cost, robust and effective technologies, said Gamula, who explained that foreign health care equipment often does not work in his nation’s high temperatures and humidity. Malawi needs devices designed by home-grown engineers. The change in education has already made a difference, with Malawian-developed products such as a tool to treat infant jaundice, low-cost ventilators and portable solar sample coolers having been rolled out in the country’s hospitals.

And yet the issue of brain drain remains a painful topic. “Africa has very many young brains, young people, but when they grow up, they are looking towards the U.S.A., looking towards Europe,” noted Uganda’s science minister, Dr. Elioda Tumwesigye. Given access to resources, he believes young scientists would remain in Africa, where they can help “our continent to develop our own capacity, to produce products that are needed and bring solutions to the challenges that we face as in Africa.”

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