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Can Entrepreneurship become the Driver for Sustainable mHealth Innovations?
A general perception is that mHealth in Africa is only about voice and SMS applications, and that these are usually products of donor and development partners initiatives. But unknown to many, this has been has not been the prevalent case. Domestic innovation and entrepreneurship are yielding commercial products and services. Recent trip to South Africa has confirmed what I have suspected and wrote about in the past on this blog (http://tiny.cc/8pcmy & http://tiny.cc/sfmp7).
That advanced mHealth innovations in hardware and software; taken as ‘Mobile Medical Devices’ (MMD) (http://tiny.cc/59bsd & http://tiny.cc/2mrix) are emerging, as we are driving innovations at MoDiSe-www.modise.org. And that these are already generating business opportunities as they are also contributing to mitigate health problems in Africa and beyond. And that to foster sustainable mHealth innovations in Africa and by extension other developing countries or emerging markets, will need domestic entrepreneurship driven by local inventions and industry and supported by both local public and private finances.
As these ensuing narratives will illustrate, my meetings with two African entrepreneurs recently at a South African hotel are reasons for this expressed optimistism. I had the privilege to sit down and speak with a lead inventor of mobile medication adherence device and a rising African mHealth entrepreneur. His name is Dr Green, the inventor of Simpill- http://www.simpill.com/ since early 2000s when the world was oblivious to hidden mHealth potentials. Discussions with him show the changing and dynamic nature of mHealth hardware innovations and business in Africa. Started as an altruistic research-based initiative conceived to make sure the compliance of HIV/AIDs sufferers to their TB drugs regimen, has since transformed to a thriving business with commercial evolutions of the 1st generation products.
Disappointed by the failure of the public sector to finance a scale-up after a successful pilot, entrepreneurship and private investment then became the only option to stem failure and continue innovation, he offered.
Then, the formed SME formed partnership with another established technology company to begin mass-production and manufacturing. Leaving the young company to continue with what it knows best; inventions and business development.
But business and technology innovations were not possible without an adequate financial support. This came in form of domestically-sourced venture capital from an individual private equity investor and a public-sector funded innovation financier.
So almost a decade after its altruistic conception, one can say that mercantilism has triumphed. The company now an established and rapidly growing market in Europe, North America and believe me, India. According to him, at least one order per day is recieved for a device manufactured in Africa and exported globally. Aside from generating jobs for locales through R&D and manufacturing, one cannot also dismiss potential revenues to government coffers through taxation.
Regardless, the main point to emphasise is that mHealth is moving beyond donor-driven initiatives to that where domestic innovations and entrepreneurship are emerging to drive commercialization and continental scalability. Ongoing introduction into the Uganda market is a testament to the latter point. That mHealth is coming of age in Africa and other emerging markets.
So at #AfricaCom (http://tiny.cc/rmef0), together with key stakeholders from the mobile telecom industry, NGOs and mHealth SMEs drawn from Africa, the reached consensus that mHealth future in Africa lies with entrepreneurship was not surprising after all. Events in other mobile industry sector in Africa are also encouraging. Not only those mobile operators in Africa have started to see business opportunities beyond their shrinking voice market, but that business acquisitions are also happening. The knowledge that MiXit- http://www.mixitusa.com/, an innovative Africa originated mobile instant messaging platform, also used for mHealth has been bought for an undisclosed large sum (I was told by the new owner that the inventor is undoubtedly a very rich man) by an African private equity company, is a case in point.
This is very encouraging indeed. Because, when I was privileged to award MiXit inventor, the best young ICT innovator in 2007, little did I envisaged that it would later become a commercial success and a target of millions rand acquisitions. Therefore, our humble beginnings at MoDiSe to foster innovations and entrepreneurship in mobile diagnostics in emerging markets are informed by our experience and belief that this is the future.