Malawian TED fellow and software engineer Soyapi Mumba is proof that Africa’s unique needs can be catered for through innovation and resourcefulness, specifically where medical challenges are concerned.
The healthcare system in Malawi mirrors that of many sub-Saharan African nations, with understaffed hospitals doing their best to care for the people they serve while struggling with record-keeping and patient identification.
Typical western models to counter those issues did not work in Malawi, as there were the added setbacks of power outages, low technology penetration and slow internet to contend with.
In 2006 Mumba joined Baobab Health, a company that uses locally based engineers to develop suitable solutions to address healthcare challenges in Malawi.
The software engineer and his team took on the challenge of helping understaffed hospitals manage HIV treatment records for a growing number of patients.
These records were previously kept in paper form and were incredibly difficult to manage.
The Baobab Health team created a new software system that traversed a number of problems to efficiently keep electronic health records, including the underlying infrastructure to support it.
Mumba spoke at a TED talk in Arusha, Tanzania this past August, inspiring his audience with a story of overcoming great odds to produce phenomenal results with medical tech in his native Malawi.
Discussing his experience in building and re-purposing the tech needed to address a number of issues with medical, and specifically HIV treatment, Mumba explained the need to be a jack-of-all-trades in order to create solutions to problems and the infrastructure to make it all work.
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“We designed an electronic health record system that is used by healthcare workers while seeing patients, and in the process we realised that we not only had to design the software, we had to implement the infrastructure as well,” he said, according to TED.
Mumba and his team came up with algorithms to estimate birth dates for those who did not know theirs, guidelines that assisted overworked nurses and clerks with their workloads, a landmark system to approximate physical addresses for those living in slums, and a bar-coded identification system to assist with record-keeping.
They then re-purposed touch screen point of sale terminals that were meant for retail stores, to become clinical workstations.
After modifying internet appliances to run on battery during power outages and have touch screen capability, they realized that the internet was simply not reliable, so they built towers and a wifi network to put the necessary infrastructure in place and link clinics across Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital.
“Now, healthcare workers who used to spend days to tally and prepare quarterly reports, are producing the same reports within minutes, and healthcare experts from all over the world are now coming to Malawi, to learn how we did it,” he said proudly.
“To make them (technology trends) work in low resource environments, like public hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa, we have have had to become jacks of all trades and build the whole system, including the infrastructure from the ground up,” he concluded.