29 June 2018

Africa: Bloodless Malaria Test Wins Africa's Engineering Prize

Nairobi — An innovative device that tests for malaria without the need for drawing blood and a laboratory technician has won a 24-year-old Ugandan software engineer the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation.

The non-invasive innovation dubbed Matibabu, which means medical centre in Swahili, is a low-cost, reusable device that clips onto a patient's finger, and can show results within one minute on a mobile phone that is linked to it.

Brian Gitta and his colleagues received the first prize worth £25,000 (almost US$33,000) in an event held in Kenya this month (13 June), and attended by over 100 delegates from academic institutions, governments, and non-governmental organisations. At the event, four finalists from Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda pitched their innovations to judges with the audience given a chance to vote.

Gitta said that his team has signed an agreement with the Ugandan government for clinical trials to enable them establish the device's effectiveness in accurately identifying patients who have malaria and those without the disease.

Shafic Sekitto, Matibabu's co-innovator, added that the prize will enable the team to conduct clinical trials necessary to test the kit's readiness for the market.

"We want to ensure rapid early diagnosis of malaria that will enable health experts to give early interventions," said Sekitto.

According to Sekitto, a red beam of light which is shone through a user's finger detects changes in the colour and concentration of red blood cells that have been affected by malaria.

He added that the device could help reduce the burden of malaria on the continent.

Sub-Saharan Africa contributed to about 90 per cent of the estimated 429,000 deaths from malaria globally in 2015, according to the WHO.

The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation which was founded by the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering, targets Sub-Saharan African engineers to develop innovations that provide solutions to challenges that affect the continent such as the burden of disease.

According to Malcom Brinded, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the head judge, the prize encourages young Africans to become entrepreneurial engineers. "Entrepreneurial innovation is essential for economic growth," Brinded explained.

He said that last year the initiative shortlisted 16 African innovators from seven African countries who have underwent six months of training and mentorship.

The three runners up innovations that received about US$13,000 each are a method created by a Zimbabwean living in South Africa for recycling precious metals found in petrol and diesel vehicles, an advanced metering system that helps Nigerian users to manage electricity supply, and a mini science laboratory bag created by a Ghanaian innovator for developing materials needed for science experiments.

"We are passionate to use engineering to solve problems in our communities," said Michael Asante, Ghanaian innovator of the science lab bag. Asante told SciDev.Net that his innovation could help students experience science in a practical way and encourage them to pursue scientific courses up to the tertiary level of education.

Kamau Gachigi, the executive director of Kenya-based software engineering venture called Gearbox, challenged African engineers to create more innovations for the continent's informal sector.

"We need to look for innovations that can be used in the informal sector to address development challenges such as unemployment in Africa," said Gachigi, noting that 85 per cent of Kenyans are employed in the informal sector.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.

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