Global health experts today published a landmark collection of papers that together provide a unique microscope on the experience of countries, companies and organizations in sub-Saharan Africa addressing neglected health problems with homegrown drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and other creative scientific and business solutions.
The first-of-its kind study chronicles the triumphs and troubles of entrepreneurs, institutes and firms in Africa creating innovative, affordable technologies that bring hope to many sufferers of local diseases. While some have yet to succeed, several organizations cleared major hurdles to finance and create products, some of which may expand into global markets one day.
It is the first research offering a broad range of evidence and concrete examples of African innovation to address local health concerns. The papers draw on the experiences of authorities, researchers and entrepreneurs in Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. In addition to efforts involving health products, the experiences of health venture capital funds in African and other developed countries are profiled.
The papers were produced by Canada's McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health (MRC), at the University Health Network and University of Toronto, and published as a special supplement in the UK-based open-access journal publisher BioMed Central Dec. 12 (with full public access at www.biomedcentral.com/bmcinthealthhumrights/10?issue=S1). One of the papers was published earlier in the journal Science.
The authors hope their work helps scale up and sustain work underway, while inspiring other organizations and countries to follow suit with the benefit of lessons learned by these African pioneers.
Says MRC Director Peter Singer: "If Africans are to prevail over diseases that kill and maim millions each year, they must do so by unleashing the formidable talents of their own African scientists and entrepreneurs. In the long term, the sustainable solutions to Africa's health problems rest with the home team."
"The large firms of the developed world producing drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and other health products are a great resource and partner. But many people will die if we wait for scientists from elsewhere to invent and market the health products Africa needs. These studies demonstrate that, with the right partners and incentives along with support from governments at home and abroad, Africans have the scientific creativity and entrepreneurial talent to improve local health and prosper at the same time."
"Our message to international agencies, donors and African governments: support these enterprises and nurture their potential, because they can make a major contribution to better health in developing countries – and to their own health. At the end of the day, this is about enabling people to solve their own problems, not only using science but also combining it with entrepreneurship."
Since it began in 2004, the MRC has focused extensively on how low-income countries themselves can remedy diseases of poverty. With relatively little profit incentive, firms in rich, developed countries largely neglect such diseases. The MRC has documented the benefits of the homegrown science approach to health problems, which include, beyond affordable products, less dependency on international donor programs and much-needed new economic opportunities and job creation. This collection represents the MRC's largest contribution to date on product commercialization for improving health in Africa.
Examples of African innovation:
In Tanzania, local funding, economies of scale, technology transfer, and partnerships all helped the A to Z Textile Company become one of the world's largest producers of long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets, cost-effectively producing tens of millions of nets in an area where malaria is a critical problem. The company succeeded despite regulatory issues, procurement rules, and other barriers.
In Madagascar, The Malagasy Institute of Applied Research (IMRA) has created Madeglucyl, a treatment for diabetes management based on a traditional remedy;
In Nigeria, the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development has a plant-based drug for sickle-cell anemia – one of the few low-toxicity drugs available anywhere to treat the debilitating chronic blood disorder – but has yet to overcome barriers to its commercialization;
"Concern over access to essential medicines have dominated international health policy debates over the last two decades," Harvard professor Calestous Juma says in a preface to the work. The debates, centered on intellectual property rights, wrongly assume that Africa will remain "a marginal player in the world of health innovation and will continue to rely on imported solutions.
"This collection of original papers provides a different prognosis. They reveal an emergent 'health innovation system' in Africa that is driven by a combination of local research, entrepreneurship and institutional adaptations."
The research complements a related MRC paper, published Dec. 10 in Science, about so-called "stagnant technologies" in sub-Saharan Africa – products with the potential to save many lives, but which exist only in a lab due to a failure of commercialization or support.
Led by researcher Ken Simiyu, some 25 such products were identified languishing in health research institutions in Africa, some already validated but not yet converted to a product or service. Of the 25 stagnant technologies found, 16 involved traditional plant products; the rest were new drug molecules, diagnostics, vaccines and medical devices.
Meanwhile, at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya, researchers have patented human odors that effectively repel mosquitoes. While there is a need to determine formulations through further research, negotiations are underway with a multinational company.
Among conclusions of the MRC research teams:
"Driven largely by entrepreneurs, innovative and affordable technologies to improve health in Africa are under development throughout the continent, with firms using a variety of business models in a range of political environments," says MRC researcher Ken Simiyu.
"Clearly, many Africans have the needed talent and know-how. However, the seeds of their efforts need careful nurturing by both donors and African governments at all levels. Required are creative institutions and coherent policies that reduce risk, build on local strengths, and promote the effective use of local health research."
Says Abdallah S. Daar, MRC Senior Scientist and Director of Ethics and Commercialization: "We are all affected in one way or another by the health and well-being of everyone else on Earth. What we present is a look at many African companies and countries striving to create local health products for local needs. Understanding all aspects of their experiences – what worked, what didn't, and what could have been done better – is a huge leg up for other firms and governments who wish to stand on the shoulders of these pioneers."
The papers in full, to be published (with open public access) will be published Sunday Dec. 12 as a special open-access BMC supplement at www.biomedcentral.com/bmcinthealthhumrights/10?issue=S1
A 25-minute interview on this topic with MRC Director Peter Singer and researcher Ken Simiyu is available online from Dec. 12 at www.mrcglobal.org/projects/african_innovation