How COVID-19 could boost African health tech

When Loveth Metiboba's baby got sick, she didn't want to take him to a clinic in Nigeria's capital Abuja - afraid they might both get exposed to coronavirus.

Instead, she spoke to a doctor online - one example of how technology, from telemedicine to drones, is rapidly transforming healthcare on a continent under lockdown.

"So I tried it, since then I have never looked back.''

Worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated changes in the way medicine is practiced but across Africa, where access is often restricted, tech companies are finding opportunities for major growth.

For example, Texas-based CureCompanion, which developed the platform Metiboba used.

It says its seen ten times more global business this year compared with 2019 but that the only African where it is present, Nigeria, has been a driving force - contributing a 12-fold increase.

Another company, Nigeria's Helium Health, brought forward the launch of its online consultation platform to February from later in the year to meet demand rising from the pandemic.

In May it raised $10 million from investors, including China's tech giant Tencent.

Co-founder Tito Ovia says COVID-19 has emphasized the inadequacies of healthcare systems on the continent.

"... and the only way we can actually be able to sort of overcome or even contain the virus is actually having health tech solutions that will help you manage the COVID response.''

But even before the pandemic, investors saw the potential for healthcare technology on a continent of rapidly expanding populations.

Data from investment firm Partech indicates that venture capital investment in Africa's health tech companies grew to $189 million in 2019 from around $20 million in both 2017 and 2018.

Even in the turmoil of the pandemic, some $97 million was raised in the first half of 2020.

Of last year's total, $120 million went to Zipline, a Californian drone firm that launched in Rwanda in 2016.

Last year it expanded into Ghana - where the government has enlisted it during lockdown to deliver coronavirus test samples, vaccines and protective clothing.

Zipline's Samuel Akufo says the drones meant deliveries could happen as quickly as possible

while also keeping costs down.

"...and if these health facilities are incurring these costs then generally it is the Ghana health system that is incurring these costs."

And across Africa that could be key.

The continent makes up 16% of the world's population and carries nearly a quarter of the global disease burden but, according to one think-tank, accounted for just 1% of global health expenditure in 2015.

Video Transcript

- When Loveth Metiboba's baby got sick, she didn't want to take him to a clinic in Nigeria's capital Abuja, afraid they might both get exposed to coronavirus. Instead, she spoke to a doctor online. One example of how technology, from telemedicine to drones, is rapidly transforming health care on a continent under lockdown.

LOVETH METIBOBA: So I tried it, and since then I've never looked back.

- Worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated changes in the way medicine is practiced. But across Africa, where access is often restricted, tech companies are finding opportunities for major growth.

LOVETH METIBOBA: Yes, I would like to see the doctor.

- For example, Texas-based CureCompanion, which developed the platform Metiboba used. It says it's seen 10 times more global business this year, compared with 2019, but that the only African country where it is present, Nigeria, has been a driving force, contributing a 12-fold increase. Another company, Nigeria's Helium Health, brought forward the launch of its online consultation platform to February from later in the year to meet demand rising from the pandemic. In May, it raised 10 million US dollars from investors, including Chinese tech giant, Tencent. Co-founder Tito Ovia says COVID-19 has emphasized the inadequacies of health care systems on the continent.

TITO OVIA: And the only way that we can actually be able to sort of overcome or even contain the virus, is actually having health tech solutions that will help you manage your COVID response.

- But even before the pandemic, investors saw the potential for health care technology on a continent of rapidly expanding populations. Data from investment firm Partech indicates that venture capital investment in Africa's health tech companies grew to $189 million in 2019 from around $20 million in both 2017 and 2018. Even in the turmoil of the pandemic, some $97 million was raised in the first half of 2020.

Of last year's total, $120 million dollars went to Zipline, a Californian drone firm that launched in Rwanda in 2016. Last year, it expanded into Ghana, where the government has enlisted it during lockdown to deliver coronavirus test samples, vaccines, and protective clothing. Zipline's Samuel Akufo says the drones meant deliveries could happen as quickly as possible while also keeping costs down.

SAMUEL AKUFO: And if these health facilities are incurring these costs, generally it is the Ghana health system that is incurring these costs.

- And across Africa, that could be key. The continent makes up 16% of the world's population and carries nearly a quarter of the global disease burden. But according to one think tank, it accounted in 2015 for just 1% of global health expenditure.