Digital health in Africa get’s a homegrown breath of life

4th July 2022

Industry 4.0 technologies are yet to be fully discovered and deployed on the African continent.  Among them are the Internet of Things, Big Data, Robotics and 3D printing, all of which play an enabling role in Digital Health. A significant base of African skills and experience in these fields are currently sitting idle, at the peril of millions of patients in Africa (and other developing worlds). The North-West University in South Africa have decided to change this narrative, by creating a multidisciplinary team who collaboratively creates digital health interventions. The team looks forward to connecting and learning from other digital health ecosystems globally, seeks collaboration and funding partners to fast-track digital health innovation on the African continent.

The North-West University in South Africa has given home-grown digital health innovation on the African continent a breath of new life in a collaboration between its NWU Business School, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Health Sciences.

“Our faculty and students want to play a more active and leading role in the development of digital health solutions for the African continent,”

explains Prof Leenta Grobler, the overall program leader and Associate Professor in Digital Economies at the NWU Business School.

Her foray into digital health started 10 years ago as computer and electronic engineering professor and mother, while visiting speech and occupational therapists.

Since then, a lot has developed.  The team has already launched several projects, with further announcements imminent.  Amongst others, they will soon boast a new, containerized lab and therapy rooms, after receiving a strategic grant from the University for the project. And late last year they onboarded Prof Mohohlo Tsoeu at the Faculty of Engineering, where he leads the faculty contributions for digital health. Prof Tsoeu has already been working with digital health projects such as Electrical Impedance Tomography and Spectroscopy (EITS) for diagnostics and continuous patient monitoring, and speech technologies that can be used for patient consultations as well as early childhood speech development interventions to mention a few.

“One of our most exciting projects is certainly our team entry for the Cybathlon 2024 competition which takes place every 4 years in Switzerland”, explains Ian Thompson, the project leader and graduate student in Engineering.  Hosted by the ETH Zurich, the competition challenges engineers and healthcare experts to develop assistive technologies, including prosthetics and wheelchairs, suitable for everyday challenges people with disabilities face. It requires multidisciplinary collaborations between engineers, prosthetists, human movement science specialists and psychologists. “Our focus is on the software and electronics; we want to make cost effective prostheses and wheelchairs in Africa that rival the best. Our team has built a trial track and has started development of new robotic leg prosthetics and a powered wheelchair. We believe that the associated competence and capacity building in Africa will enable and support the elderly, and the many patients with disabilities from birth, accidents or civil war”.    

The University has also established Med-E-Hive (www.med-e-hive.com), a commercialization vehicle for a portfolio of digital health projects in various stages of development and in a variety of fields, spanning remote monitoring of ventilators to speech therapy and nutrition monitoring in infants and newborns. The latter was recently awarded a first prize at the 2022 Commonwealth Digital Health Awards.

In a further exciting development, the team has co-founded a new Pan-African collaboration of universities pursuing digital health innovation on the continent. “We’ll share more details soon about a launch event in Kenya in September,”, “it will be a game changer for African engineers and scientists in this space,” explains Prof Grobler. Several members of the above platform are working to establish a Digital Health Institute for Africa, with a multi-hub model, for the development of mobile apps which support health care in the widest sense.

The team looks forward to connecting and learning from other digital health ecosystems globally, seeks collaboration and funding partners to fast-track digital health innovation on the African continent.

Discover more about the North-West University in South Africa:

The North-West University in South Africa creates home-grown digital health innovation for Africa in a multidisciplinary effort between its Business School, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Health Sciences.

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