Innovative use of technology is enabling new ways to effectively address historic challenges.
Clever solutions to real problems
Working in isolated rural areas of South Africa and Swaziland, ophthalmologist Dr William Mapham experienced the challenges of diagnosing and treating patients in remote settings.
“Clinics lack basic diagnostic tools and skills, and if a rural healthcare worker needs to consult a specialist they have to try and get hold of someone on the phone and try and explain the problem. Some patients would come unnecessarily to hospitals at huge personal expense, others would come too late for treatment.”
Mapham, fortunately a competent computer-wrangler, was inspired to develop an app to link rural healthcare workers with on-call specialists in hospitals. He produced a basic Android version, and called it Vula - “open” in Zulu. A slicker professional version followed.
The app streamlines the diagnostic process - the rural healthcare worker uses the app to conduct a basic eye exam, take photographs, and fill in a very specific form, so the specialist has all relevant patient information. They then chat online or, if necessary, on the phone.
If the app is unusual, Mapham’s business model is even more so. Development was funded largely by money from prizes for innovation and entrepreneurship, including the African Entrepreneurship Award in Morocco, the SAB Innovation Award, and the Clearly Vision Prize, which is designed to find new ways to deliver eye care around the world. Even so, like many start-ups, Vula has been in constant danger of running out of money.
“I never want the patient or specialist to pay for anything,” says Mapham. “Departments and administrators pay for dashboards and reports on who’s seeing patients, how fast they’re responding, what conditions are being treated and so on. The app collects data on the fly, data that was never available before. We have battled with funding, but are now close to getting a contract from the Department of Health.”
The app is now available for 10 other medical specialties including burns, dermatology, cardiology and HIV, and there are more to come.
Patients get better care, more quickly. Rural healthcare workers are up-skilled and empowered. Specialists have better information and less disruptive communications. It’s a clever and innovative solution to a real problem.
Last year’s student protests under the banner of #FeesMustFall highlighted the desperate need for affordable access to universities and quality post-school training. South Africa’s education system is under immense pressure. Government, private companies and non-profits are searching for solutions.
One organisation stepping up with an innovative tech-based solution is MOOV – Massive Open Online Varsity. MOOV offers business and computer courses from top institutions, including the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania‚ University of Adelaide‚ Microsoft Academy and Wix Web.
What’s different about this solution is that it includes MOOV learning centres that have been set up in public libraries in and around Johannesburg. Students register for courses and book their study sessions online, and come to study at the bright and pleasant spaces where facilitators – most of them young graduates from MOOV - are on hand to help them get started.
Founder Rael Lissoos explains that the aim is to provide smart education and to eliminate some of the hurdles facing students, in particular cost and accessibility. Most of the centres are in townships, so that young people can walk or take an inexpensive taxi ride from their homes. There are no entrance requirements, no fixed times, and thanks to a partnership with City of Johannesburg, the courses are offered for free. “A student can leave their shack in the township of Ivory Park, walk to the centre, and do a course from MIT,” says Lissoos.
Courses are employment-focused. “We have chosen courses from overseas universities’ online courses that have a business and computer focus, and within that, we’re looking for what will get students employed.”
Every student starts with a basic web design course, which gets them up to speed with computer literacy and gives them a marketable skill. They can then move on to choose more specific courses. As students come from vastly different educational backgrounds, Khan Academy materials are used to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
In the past year, MOOV has opened 12 campuses and reached 12 000 students, filling a gap in South Africa’s education system and changing lives.
Nnamdi Oranye, author of Disrupting Africa: The Rise and Rise of African Innovation believes that these sorts of innovative approaches are key to addressing the challenges. He says that disruption is inevitable, and that the only way to respond is to foster and invest in innovators: “Innovation is critical to our economy and must be embedded in the DNA of the corporate infrastructure, either with current employees as ‘interpreneurs’ or in partnerships.”
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