Why African E-health Companies Are Becoming World Leaders

Written by Tom Jackson

Last month’s Frost & Sullivan report, Enabling eHealth Technology in South Africa, Kenya and Ghana, painted a glowing picture of the e-health space on the continent.

From telecoms to startups, many firms are capitalising on the increasing advancements in ICT to improve healthcare delivery, with South Africa, Kenya and Ghana ahead of the game.

“The total eHealth market for South Africa, Kenya and Ghana is in a nascent stage with expectations of high long-term growth,” said Aditi Bhalla, transformational health research analyst for Frost & Sullivan.

These expectations are spot on. With the evident problems with the cost and efficiency of healthcare delivery across Africa, and the serious issues connecting people in rural areas with specialist healthcare providers, the fact a market would develop around innovations in this area is common sense.

International firms have not been slow to see the opportunity either. The likes of Vodacom, Econet and Safaricom are looking into e-health opportunities, while renowned global healthcare firms are also joining the party.

International healthcare firms are also getting active. And some are delving deeper than others. German firm Merck has taken its e-health accelerator programme, initially launched on its home turf, to Kenya, offering funding and mentorship to e-health startups from across Africa. Kenyan self-diagnosis mobile app PreMedicus and Ghanaian medication-ordering app MedRX were amongst those chosen for the programme’s second cohort recently.

Karina Fassbender, innovation facilitator at Merck, said at the time the quality of the startups applying for the programme was high, and this may offer more clues as to why the e-health space is expected to boom in Africa. Some of the companies operating in the sector are very, very good.

Though the Frost & Sullivan report commended Kenya for its e-health development, when it comes to homegrown startups operating in the space South Africa seems to be ahead of the game. Take LifeQ, which has tapped into the human sensor through a collaboration of technologies.

Serious Funding

The company launched globally at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last year. Not many companies get the opportunity to do that. The startup has developed technology that allows people to optimize and improve the condition of the human body by continuous physiological monitoring and bio-mathematical modelling.

LifeQ raised a serious funding round shortly afterwards, and this year partnered a US company to develop tech making it possible for non-invasive body monitoring devices to provide highly accurate physiological data on the human condition.

This data is currently only available through the use of expensive and invasive equipment, but an African company is at the forefront of changing all that. LifeQ’s sensors can track an individual’s physiological parameters, such as heart rate, sleep quality and calorie intake.

Other South African companies are making waves too. Vula Mobile allows remote health workers to conduct a basic eye test, as well as capture basic patient information and take photographs, before sending it directly to specialists who can offer a diagnosis.

This is groundbreaking for people in rural areas, and Vula Mobile is now expanding into the areas of Orthopaedics, Dermatology, Cardiology, ENT, HIV, Family Medicine, and Burns, as well as the original Ophthalmology.

Founder Dr William Mapham says medicine is an industry crying out for change as it seeks to save lives and improve the health conditions of billions worldwide.

“Vula is just one of many mobile health apps that is making a difference and we seek to partner with whomever possible to make change happen,” he said.

“Our primary focus is helping patients who don’t have medical aid by empowering health workers. Our drive to have an impact in this sector isn’t made easy because there is cash in the system. We will never charge patients, health workers or specialists.”

Another South African company innovating in the remote diagnosis space is hearScreen, based on technology developed at the University of Pretoria in 2013. Using headphones and a smartphone app, hearScreen detects hearing loss using real-time environmental monitoring and onsite data capturing, and refers patients to specialists.

The concept has take off, and the startups is now active in almost 30 countries globally. Screening is completed in one minute, and no electricity is required, meaning it could be a gamechanger in hearing health globally.

“Hearing screening is the first access point for the identification of hearing loss to initiate appropriate interventions that minimise and negate the negative impact of hearing loss. At present hearing test equipment is prohibitively expensive and inaccessible to the vast majority of South Africans,” said CEO Nic Klopper.

Prohibitive expense and inaccessibility remain hindrances to healthcare across Africa and other parts of the world. But the good news is that the likes of LifeQ, Vula Mobile and hearScreen are here to help. Innovations like these could be the making of Africa as a global leader in e-health.

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