Friday, February 24, 2017

NEWS POST: African App Cuts Medical Costs With Community "Virtual Pharmacy"

Image credit/source:
A mobile app in Senegal helps families save money and reduce waste through a "virtual pharmacy" where users can exchange leftover medication for new prescriptions.

Jokko$anté is scaling up after a two-year pilot phase in one Senegalese town and on Friday launched a partnership with its first hospital, said founder Adama Kane. It aims to reach 300,000 families in the West African nation by the end of the year.

"Everyone has a box of unused medicine in their cabinet," Kane told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "The idea is to create a medicine box for the whole community."

The app allows users to trade in unused, packaged medicine for points which can go toward the purchase of new medicine when they need it. All of the exchanges are done at health centres or pharmacies by licensed professionals.

Since launching two years ago in the town of Passy, Jokko$anté has gained 1,200 members and 3.5 million CFA francs (US$5,600) worth of medicine has been exchanged, said Kane.

Jokko$anté's new partners include a hospital and four pharmacies in and around capital Dakar. It plans to expand internationally soon, reaching six African countries by the end of the year and 15 by 2020.

"Most health programmes are focused on providing care, but there hasn't been any ambitious project yet to address the accessibility of medicine," Kane said.

His team found half to three quarters of Senegalese families' health spending went on medicine. Those who can't afford drugs from pharmacies sometimes get them on the street, fuelling illegal trade and the spread of fake medication.

"I think it responds to a real need," Bitilokho Ndiaye, an advisor who works with start-ups in Senegal's posts and telecommunications ministry, said of the app.

Era of Sharing
"Jokko$anté" is a play on the French word for health and a word that means "give and receive" in Senegal's most widely spoken language Wolof.

Giving is an important part of the system, said Kane. Users can send points to family members and friends, and donors can buy points for people in need.

The project has been driven by partners such as French telecoms giant Orange, who gain visibility in the process, said Kane.

Companies can target a certain demographic, such as women in their thirties, and if a matching user doesn't have enough points to pay for a prescription she will receive a text saying which company donated to complete her purchase.

Kane thinks the app could spread throughout Africa and even to Europe.

"We're in a new era of sharing," he said. "People like collaboration. I think that's why this speaks to people." (US$1 = 622.4500 CFA francs)

Jokko$anté, The Virtual Community Pharmacy In Senegal
Adama Kane making a pitch of Jokko$anté. Image credit/source:
In Senegal, household health expenditure is mainly expenditure on medicines. For the more affluent communities living in Dakar, they account for 52% and for the poorest living in rural areas, purchases of drugs are estimated at 72% of the population's expenditure.

In addition, nearly 80% of the population does not have medical coverage and the benefits of some insurance or mutual insurance do not include medicines. 

Paradoxically, in such a context of scarcity of resources, the consumption of medicines is not optimized since unused medicines accumulate in certain family medicine boxes until they expire or are offered without any control.

Companies, in the context of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, do not have a secure platform where they can register their donations and follow the distribution to the final beneficiary, thus increasing their visibility of the target population.

It is this fact that led to the project Jokko$anté, an initiative of Adama Kane, a telecom engineer with a passion for technological innovation. The project was launched on 24 February 2015 in the municipality of Passy (Fatick region) with the support of Sonatel and the NGO RAES.

As a response to this situation, Jokko$anté proposes a community system for the deposit, storage, sharing, and cross-financing of medicines, which transfers the pharmacy box from the family scale to the departmental, regional or even country. 

This system is backed up by a web / mobile application that allows all transactions to be carried out safely with the end-to-end involvement of healthcare professionals and in compliance with the protocols and procedures in force.

How Jokko$anté Works.
Members can register freely on the website or can be registered by local managers. Each member thus has a personal account linked to their mobile phone number which can be Orange, Tigo or Expresso.

This account is credited whenever the member deposits medication and is debited each time the member withdraws medication upon presentation of a prescription. The account can also be credited with donations from the CSR Companies and the beneficiary receives an SMS indicating the company that offered the points or medicines. 

Also the transactions are carried out essentially by SMS, so that the application works with all types of telephones and all mobile networks.

The objective Jokko$anté  is to unite all layers of the population around the same objective of improving access to medicines:

the members belonging to the middle layer of the population earn points by submitting new drug or Not used

philanthropic members have a secure platform to make donations and follow the distribution to the final beneficiary

Senegalese from outside as well as residents of big cities will be able to buy points and transfer them to family members at Village

members with modest incomes will benefit from the donations of the partner structures in the framework of their sponsorship and corporate social responsibility (CSR / SAR) activities

donor companies and organizations have a platform for promotion and Monitoring of their CSR / SAR activities with direct SMS communication and better visibility among the beneficiary populations

Pilot project in Passy
Since its launch in Passy, ​​the project has been a success with the participation of companies such as Bolloré Africa Logistics Senegal and Sodipharm who have offered medicines. 

Sonatel had made available funds for the development of the application and batch of drugs offered by its staff.

Since August 10, 2015, Sonatel has launched a permanent collection of medicines for the Jokko$anté project.

The project is nominated in the Word Summit Award as the best application of Senegal in the fields of Health and Environment. It is also part of the projects selected at the Round2 of the African Entrepreneurship Award on nearly 5000 applications. (Edited to reflect current growth figures) (TRANSLATED FROM FRENCH)

Originally published (STORY 1) on REUTERS and (STORY 2) on SOCIALNETLINK

Monday, February 20, 2017

NEWS POST: African Scientists Are Fostering A New R&D Culture To Reverse The Continent’s Brain Drain

Innovating the future. (EPA/Nic Bothma)
When it comes to scientific research and innovation, Africa is a global laggard. The continent contributes a paltry 1% of the world’s research output, a far cry from its position as the world’s second most populated continent.

Much of this problem is compounded by low-quality educational curricula, not to mention global funding that is skewed towards health and agricultural development and less so on science, technology, mathematics, and engineering projects. (STEM).

But all is not lost—as more and more African researchers broaden their horizon and engage in much-needed projects. These projects tackle issues ranging from food security, energy, transportation, to poverty, diseases like malaria and HIV, immunization, not to mention the challenges stemming from climate change. This has seen the number of papers from African researchers double in just over a decade, improving in quantity, quality, and international citation according to data from Scopus, the largest database of peer-reviewed literature.

But an increasing number of institutions, individuals and governments are also heralding a new era for scientific research by providing funds for diverse and Africa-specific scientific solutions. These include the Grand Challenges Africa Grants, which this year partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to provide US$7 million in grants over the next five years for scientific breakthroughs in maternal healthcare and precision medicine in Africa.

There’s the Kwame Nkrumah Scientific award from the African Union, which gives US$100,000 to top African scientists who provide innovations in life and earth science. The Next Einstein Fellowship, which recognizes and awards Africa’s distinguished scientists under the age of 42.

Top continental and global corporations have also started investing in innovation projects in Africa. In early November, pharmaceutical and consumer good company Johnson & Johnson announced the launch of its 100,000 Africa Innovation Challenge. Besides early child development, the award focuses on providing solutions for empowering young women and improving family well-being. Five years ago, telecommunications company Etisalat also launched its innovation prize that rewards products, services or ideas that promote mobile broadband usage—a key driver of smartphone adoption in the continent. In Kenya, IBM launched its first hub in Africa in 2013, with the aim of driving and supporting homegrown innovation.

Observers say that the springing of all these funding opportunities is a testament to the talent within the continent. Speaking of the Grand Challenges project, Tom Kariuki from the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa said, “Solutions for Africa’s challenges do exist within the continent. As an African grant-making body, we are focused on tapping the best minds on the continent to develop innovative local solutions to our health and development challenges.”

Governments like Rwanda have also been proactive, adopting a formal policy (pdf) on innovation and technology, and introducing a ministry of science to strengthen scientific development.

But progress across the continent is yet to be even, with some African scientists leaving home because of lack of recognition or in search of better pastures. Egypt, a country with so many scientists, loses tens of thousands of them to universities and research centers across Europe, Japan, and the United States. One of those scientists, Ahmed Zewail, even became a naturalized American citizen and went on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1999.

The World Bank has also noted that higher education systems in Africa are skewed towards disciplines such as humanities and social sciences. Research funding in Sub-Saharan Africa also focuses primarily on health and agricultural research, hindering the diversification of research efforts. But “renewed focus on these fields should not be seen as shifting attention from honoring excellence in the humanities and social sciences. Excellence is not a zero-sum game,” said Calestous Juma, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.

But to build an African future powered and inspired by science, that challenge will have to start in the classroom. Countries should develop curricula that encourage “science education for all,” a system rooted in exploration, tinkering, and application.

Eventually, innovation grants can play a role in revolutionizing scientific research, improving employment and reversing brain drain in Africa. But as funding for projects continues to trickle in, countries will need to be ready to supply the right manpower to take up these opportunities.

Originally published on QUARTZ AFRICA

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

NEWS POST: Kudi Wants To Make It Easier To Pay Bills In Places Where Internet Access Is Limited

Introducing Kudi - seamless bill payment through chat. Screen grab of Kudi YouTUBE promo

Making payments and sending money to friends and family in Nigeria can be cumbersome. Y Combinator-backed Kudi, which recently launched in Nigeria, is aiming to make it easier for people to pay bills and pay each other via messaging.

At its core, Kudi is a chatbot, which lives inside Facebook Messenger and eventually Skype, that helps you transfer money, buy airtime for your phone, pay bills and stay on top of your accounts.

Although it’s possible to pay TV, energy and cell phone bills online in Nigeria, only 39% of the population in Nigeria has access to the internet, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center report.

For comparison’s sake, more than 80% of the population in the U.S. and 94 percent of the population in South Korea has access to the internet. What that means for a lot of people in Nigeria is that they’ll need to physically go somewhere to pay their bills.

Since Kudi is part of Facebook’s Free Basics, it doesn’t cost any data to use. To send a payment to someone via Kudi, all you need is someone’s phone number.

Unlike other money transfer services in Nigeria, people who use Kudi don’t have to pay any fees when transferring money to bank accounts. Kudi, however, does charge a convenience fee of ₦100 (about 30 cents) for bill payments. So far, US$15,000 worth of transactions have been made through Kudi and it’s grown 125 percent week over week in revenue.

Y Combinator is an American seed accelerator, started in March 2005. Fast Company has called YC "the world's most powerful start-up incubator".
Kudi is not the only startup trying to fix the payments problem in Nigeria. Paga, perhaps one of the more well-known payments startup in the country, combines online payments with offline components. To date, the startup has raised US$13 million in venture funding. There’s also KongaPay, a mobile app for paying bills and buying both products online and in person. But Kudi seems to be well aware of the competition.

“A few services have tried mobile apps but consumers are tired of installing and figuring out new apps,” Kudi co-founder Pelumi Aboluwarin told TechCrunch.

“Some aren’t even that sophisticated to handle the nuances that accompany every new mobile app and will rather stick with those they already use. Messaging on the other hand is a more compelling interface as it works for people across generations. This is because everyone understood messaging right from the days of SMS and chat apps have been the most successful apps on the continent.”

After Kudi finishes participating in Y Combinator, the plan is to raise money and then expand to Kenya and Ghana.

Originally published on TECHCRUNCH

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

NEWS POST: The 17-Year-Old Google Coding Winner Whose Cameroonian Hometown Has Been Cut Off From The Internet

Cameroonian Google coding champ Nji Collins Gbah was cut off by the disruption (NJI COLLINS GBAH)
Nji Collins Gbah is one lucky teenager. In Nov. 2016, the tech enthusiast from Bamenda, Cameroon, started participating in the Google Code-in competition. The global online contest introduces pre-university students aged 13 to 17 to the world of open source, and Gbah, now 17, was participating for the second and last time.

In 2016 alone, over 1,300 students from 62 countries took part in the competition. In total, they completed more than 6,400 tasks related to coding, research, documentation, quality assurance and improving user interfaces. During the seven-week program, Gbah completed 20 tasks using the Open Medical Record System, or OpenMRS, a platform that focuses on improving healthcare service in developing countries.

“I was anxious,” Gbah wrote in a blog post published a day before the deadline on Jan. 16. But “I had to find ways to turn my nervousness into creativity and fun.” Gbah said that he chose to participate with OpenMRS “because the whole idea of writing code to save lives was really amazing and I wanted to be part of it.”

But one day after the competition ended, the government shutdown the internet in Bamenda, Gbah’s hometown and the capital of the northwest region. The shutdown also affected the southwest region and was instituted following protests in the two Anglophone regions against marginalization from the French-dominated government. Since then, the shutdown has drawn criticism from digital advocacy groups, and from United Nations experts, who have called it “an appalling violation” to freedom of expression.

First among equals. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
But on Jan. 30, almost two weeks into the blackout, Gbah was selected as one of 34 winners—and the first African (SEE STORY 2) —of the annual competition. His story, that of a young developer winning an esteemed hacking award, has been used as a rallying point for those campaigning against the shutdown. During the upcoming summer, Gbah alongside the other winners will be spending time at the Google campus in California, and meet with the tech company’s engineers.

“This is great news” for the tech community in Cameroon, says Kenneth Ngah, a tech entrepreneur who established platforms like LCM Tours and No Kid Behind. “It is a moment we will encourage non-tech enthusiasts to get into the field and advance it.”

The internet shutdown has been crippling the tech industry in Cameroon, known as the Silicon Mountain. Many start-ups which are based in cities like Buea have stopped their operations or had to move to other big cities like Douala and Yaoundé, where the internet connection is still accessible.

“Without the internet, it’s like killing the community people have toiled for years to build up,” says Angela Lumneh, who financed and created Opportunity Space, an app that enables Cameroonians to find scholarships abroad.

Founders like Ayuk Etta, whose company Skylabase provides software to financial solutions, have even been thinking of moving out of the country. Etta says that they have lost US$6,500 since the shutdown, and he has to commute the over 70-kilometer distance to Douala every day just to connect to the internet.

“Maybe we will have to leave the country to a more suitable country which has a better ecosystem to support technology business,” he said.

Taking to the streets - Bamenda, Cameroon. (Reuters/Stringer)
NEWS POST: 17 Year-Old Cameroonian Developer Is First African To Win Google Code-In Competition
On the 30th of January 2017, Google announced winners and finalists of ‘Google Code-in’ (CGI) via a blog post. According to the announcement, 1,340 students from 62 countries had completed 6,418 tasks to bring the competition to a close. 

Every year, Google hosts the Google Code-in allowing teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 especially pre-university students complete tasks specified by partner open source organizations which include Drupal, Wikimedia and Sugar Labs among others.

Of the hundreds that participated, 34 teenagers completed 842 tasks to emerge grand price winners. And one of the winners is a Cameroonian reportedly marking the continent’s debut in the global competition.

Nji Collins is an art inclined final-year high-schooler who loves contributing to Open Source projects and is interested in technology-related knowledge especially web development. ‘Collin Grimm‘, as his online alias goes, participated in Google Code-in with OpenMRS; an open source enterprise electronic medical record system platform.

According to a blog post documenting the CGI experience, Collins Nji recalls that this was his second and final time in the competition as participants are only allowed a two-time chance of participation.

Screenshot of the OpenMRS Atlas -
The 34 teenage grand prize winners had completed 842 assigned tasks in total. According to Google, each of the winners will be flown to the Google Campus for four days to meet and interact with Google engineers and have a feel of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Google Code-in first kicked off as the now defunct Google Highly Open Participation Contest that was discontinued in 2008. The 1,340 students that jointly completed 6,480 tasks in 2016 were the largest turnout witnessed by the competition since it started in 2010.

Originally published (STORY 1) on QUARTZ AFRICA and (STORY 2) on TECHPOINT 

Thursday, February 09, 2017

NEWS POST: How Six Young Women Invented A Life-Changing Device In Less Than A Day

Image: Courtesy of Team Tactile
With just a few hours left to build a groundbreaking gadget, things weren't going as smoothly as planned.

Six young women, all undergrad engineering students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, had established a lofty goal: to create the first-ever affordable device that immediately translates printed text into Braille. The idea could prove revolutionary for the blind community, transforming how they read while also creating sorely needed opportunities for children with low or no vision.

But throughout the hectic, 15-hour MakeMIT hackathon last February, the women — competing as Team 100% Enthusiasm — were running into snags. The lines for hackathon participants to use the 3D printers were taking forever. The team laser-cut the wrong material for the casing. And the optical recognition software they wanted to use — crucial for the device to actually work — wasn't turning up accurate translations of text. 

"It turned out to be a lot harder than we thought," says Charlene Xia, one of the team members.

With only 15 minutes left on the clock, they finally had a working prototype — albeit a crude one. The device was big and hastily taped together in places, with wires poking out and only a few pins for Braille characters.

"It was janky," Xia says, laughing. "But it worked."

An early Tactile prototype. Image: Courtesy of Team Tactile
It did indeed work, enough so to take first place in the hackathon. The device, dubbed Tactile, had been born. 

A year later, Team 100% Enthusiasm has been renamed Team Tactile. The women are already making waves with their invention, both in terms of accessibility and advancing the visibility of women in tech.

But with a ways to go before Tactile hits the market, and big plans for the future, they're really just getting started.

A collective goal to (affordably) change the world
Image: Courtesy of Team Tactile
Right before the hackathon, the young women were sitting in Xia's bedroom, deciding what to build. Their ideas ranged from a dancing robot so people wouldn't be lonely at clubs to an alarm clock that would wake you up by splashing water in your face.

They quickly realized, however, that they really wanted to create something that could change the world for the better.

One teammate brought up a concept design she'd seen of a Braille watch. They toyed with the idea of building a text-to-Braille converter, but figured something like that had to already exist. So they did what any of us would do — they Googled it.

"There were a few things, like refreshable Braille technology, that cost like US$3,000. And we were like, 'Holy crap. Why is this so expensive?'" Xia says.

Images of the MakeMIT hackathon prototype. Image: Courtesy of Team Tactile
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, refreshable Braille displays, which typically help blind users read information from a computer screen, cost between US$3,500 and US$15,000 depending on the number of characters they have. Portable devices on the market, like the Android-based B2G, still cost around US$2,500. The technology is expensive, and just two companies essentially have a duopoly on the tech. The devices are typically sold by the Braille dot (one character has six dots), and they can go for US$30 or more per dot.

But Tactile, proposed to be the size of a candy bar with 36 characters (216 dots), could cost as little as US$100.

A rendering of the future Tactile prototype. Image: Courtesy of Team Tactile
Here's how it works: You slide the device over printed text, like a book, menu, or even a packaging label. The camera captures images of the words and sends them to a microcontroller, which then performs text recognition. That information, via an electromagnetic activation mechanism, moves the pins up and down at the top of the device, translating the text into Braille. Like with other displays, the Braille characters physically refresh as they scroll through sections of text.

"We're using cheaper material and an easier manufacturing method," says Xia, and this drives down prices.

US$100 is just an estimate. But even if they land at US$200, Team Tactile still thinks it will be a success.

Paul Parravano, co-director of MIT's Government and Community Relations office, gives Team Tactile feedback from a blind person's perspective. Image: Courtesy of Team Tactile
The tech effect on Braille
Approximately 1.3 million Americans are legally blind, though millions more live with a visual disability. At the end of 2015, an estimated 61,739 students were reported as legally blind. Globally, 39 million people are blind and 246 million have low vision.

But if you think about how much the iPhone has evolved over just the past decade, the stagnant Braille display market looks archaic in comparison.

Since the blind community is a relatively small percentage of the overall population, there's a perceived lack of demand for improved Braille technology. There's not a huge incentive for companies to develop better tech for the blind.

As a result, Braille displays are more or less the same as they were 30 years ago.

Charlene Xia, of Team Tactile, works on the technology behind the device. Image: Courtesy of Team Tactile
In the advent of new technologies like VoiceOver and other text-to-speech software, Braille literacy rates are declining. Only an estimated 10 percent of children learn Braille today, because it's often seen as too difficult, time-consuming or outdated to teach. But advocates argue Braille is just as important as ever, especially when it comes to employment.

Up to 70 percent of blind people are unemployed, according to widely cited statistics, due to discrimination, misconceptions, distance barriers and other factors. But 80% of blind people who are employed have something in common: They can all read Braille. It helps them learn things like grammar and punctuation, and how to read charts and graphs — all difficult, if not impossible, to learn using text-to-speech.

"One of the biggest things we learned is that most visually impaired families fall below the average income class," Xia says. "They don't have the proper education ... because they can't afford the tools to get the information they need to get higher-income jobs."

It's a vicious cycle, Xia says, and one Team Tactile hopes to break. 

"We really hope this technology will offset the market and just open up some competition, and drive the price down as much as we can," she says.

Unexpected role models
Regardless of how it was conceived and produced, Tactile is an invention that can open doors for the blind community.

Nevertheless, it's noteworthy that it was six young women in their early 20s who created such a life-changing device. The number of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields is still lackluster, thanks to stereotypes, bias and an often unwelcoming climate at universities.

Team Tactile (L-R): Chandani Doshi, Jialin Shi, Bonnie Wang, Charlene Xia, Tania Yu and Grace Li. Image: Courtesy of Team Tactile
To wit: In 2013, only 18% of people who graduated with a computer science degree in the U.S. were women. Professionally, women make up only 29% of the science and engineering workforce. A recent study found that gender stereotypes around STEM can affect girls as young as age six.

But gender doesn't change anything for Team Tactile. "Our team isn't really thinking, 'Oh, we're women,' working differently in any way," says team member Tania Yu. "This is what we enjoy, this is what we want to do, so we just went for it."

And that's Team Tactile's message for young girls: If you're interested in science and engineering, don't be afraid to go for it.

"They can see us and be like, 'They can do it; we can do it, too.' And they don't have to feel like it's only men doing this," Yu says.

Xia sees a lot of Facebook posts and videos of new inventions, and the inventors always seem to be men. She admits it can be subconscious for younger girls. If you only see men doing it, you might start to believe women can't.

"We're happy that when we have a Facebook post up about our project, maybe girls are watching it ... and maybe they'll consider applying to STEM fields and try it out," Xia says.

The future is Tactile
After last February's hackathon, Team Tactile was accepted into Microsoft's #MakeWhatsNext patent programme, which provides legal help to women inventors throughout the complex process of getting a patent. They applied last September, and Tactile received "patent pending" status that same week.

In the meantime, they're working on different iterations of the prototype, aiming to meet the accepted standards for refreshable Braille displays in terms of size and durability.

The current Tactile prototype. Image: Courtesy of Team Tactile 
The last step is creating an accompanying app, so people can connect Tactile to their smartphones and use the device beyond printed text.

"We plan for this semester — our last semester — to be a sprint toward our goal," Xia says. "A couple of people on our team have already decided to work on this after graduation. But, ideally, by the end of this semester — June of this year — we will have our first ideal prototype."

And Team Tactile won't stop there. The long-term goal is to see this brought to production. Ultimately, they want any blind or low-vision child to be able to use to the device for all purposes, from school to everyday life.

"We want this to open up information access to the entire visually impaired community," Yu says. "We can really help remove some of the various barriers they face."

Originally published on Mashable