In 2020, during the early days of the pandemic, hospital staff in Dakar were contracting the virus as Senegal already had 1,400 cases and 19 deaths. A group of engineering students came together to build a robot, Dr Car, controlled by an app that would allow doctors to speak to and treat patients remotely - reducing their exposure to the virus.
Despite the devastation the pandemic caused, it presented an opportunity for improvements and innovation in Africa’s ailing healthcare system. And although the virus was relatively well-contained, healthcare systems across the continent have not changed much.
According to a WHO Africa study, the number of innovations or adjustments to existing technologies that emerged from the pandemic was reported to be about 1,000. Of this number, however, only 128 were piloted or adopted in Africa.
These innovations have not been evenly spread across African countries. South Africa (13%), Kenya (10%), Nigeria (8%), and Rwanda (6%) took the lion’s share, accounting for 37% of innovations on the continent.
This means that the other 50 countries produced only 80 innovations. That’s less than two per country, with some countries probably getting no innovations at all.
The healthtech sector has historically struggled when compared with other sectors in Africa, and the pandemic has only revealed how deep-rooted the problem is. African governments invest far less in innovation compared to other regions. A World Bank study reports that African countries, at around 0.01% per capita, invest far less in innovation than developed countries.
Where there’s investment in innovation, it hardly goes into healthtech. Data shows that in 2019, healthtech received the least foreign investment with only $15.3 million - a mere 3% of the $593.8m that came in that year.
So with no money coming in from either side of the globe, healthtech in Africa sits in a precarious position. Although charity begins at home, it's one thing for African governments to rethink where and how they direct resources, it's another for them to strengthen healthcare systems through sustainable policies. But herein lies a different problem.
As healthcare is typically provided by the government, healthtech companies run at the constant risk of being sidelined if the government chooses to start the same innovation without necessarily supporting theirs.
So while money is a core need, a funded healthtech startup largely remains a house built on sand when it's not backed by supportive regulation - the slightest huff, and it's gone.