Investments In Science And Innovation Key To Equitable Healthcare In Africa

Africa must ramp up investment in African-led science innovation and the entrepreneurship potential of its young people to develop homegrown solutions to quality healthcare

Prof. Rose Leke and Cheikh Oumar Seydi 

Africa Day, celebrated on May 25th, holds significant importance as it provides an opportunity to commemorate the progress Africa has achieved over the years. The occasion should also serve as an opportunity to reflect on the remarkable advancements the continent has made in various spheres, such as education, infrastructure, economic development and advancing healthcare. 

As we celebrate Africa Day, it is also important to introspect on the common challenges that persistently confront the continent, particularly in the realm of healthcare. By acknowledging hurdles, we can offer renewed commitment and collective action towards improving health systems, addressing diseases, and ensuring equitable access to healthcare services for all.

Progress in fighting prevalent diseases like Malaria, Tuberculosis and Neglected Tropical Diseases has stalled or regressed1 over the past few years, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic, and other headwinds impacting the continent.

Yet we know that access to essential healthcare for all, resulting in a healthy, productive population, is necessary for Africa to realise its economic, social and development potential.

The good news is that all the human capital and financial resources necessary for Africa to develop solutions to its healthcare challenges exist in abundance on the continent. The challenge lies in channeling the investment required to catalyze scientific innovation to tackle new and existing disease threats, while strengthening systems for healthcare delivery.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Africa accounts for about 1% of global health R&D expenditure2, despite bearing a substantial share of the global disease burden. Africa also has 98 researchers per million inhabitants, compared to the global average of 1,342 researchers3, limiting the human capital available to research and innovate new solutions to advance healthcare on the continent.

Africa Day this year, under the theme of Accelerating implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area, calls upon African countries to collaborate effectively realize the shared vision of prosperity the continent deserves, and which is outlined in Agenda 2063.

Now is the opportune moment to strengthen Africa’s leadership in science and innovation, particularly in the realm of healthcare. With the continent’s immense potential for progress, including its youthful population and rapid adoption of technology, investing in critical sectors can propel Africa towards becoming a beacon of development and progress on the global stage. African governments, working together with regional and international partners can scale up investments in science-based research and development and develop solutions that can address the continent’s core health challenges. 

To support the goal of quality healthcare for all, domestic and international partners can work with local stakeholders to create more opportunities for young people to channel innovation towards novel healthcare delivery models. It is also important to address the gender disparities that exist in the field of healthcare and to promote gender equality in science and leadership positions. Women play a crucial role in driving innovation and advancing healthcare systems, and their inclusion is vital for sustainable progress.  For example, Kenya’s Professor Nelly Mugo has highlighted the need to increase access to HPV vaccines and cervical cancer screening and treatment options to eliminate cervical cancer arguing that no woman should lose her life to a preventable disease like cervical cancer. 

We agree with Professor Nelly that “for too long, the tools needed to end cervical cancer have not reached girls and women in lower-income countries.” And now, new results from a study she and other researchers conducted in Kenya show that a single dose of HPV vaccine can protect against cervical cancer over multiple years. 

We need not look hard to understand just what investing in science-led innovation can do for Africa’s healthcare landscape. Science is already helping to advance healthcare outcomes on the continent. During the pandemic, African countries like South Africa which had up until that point made greater investment in healthcare R&D, were able to identify locally based variants sooner and administering vaccines to their populations faster. This was thanks to their accumulated investments in health systems and infrastructure.

Similarly, African countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya are today investing in genomic research and precision medicine, to develop tailored interventions to prevalent diseases. In Senegal, the  Institut Pasteur of Dakar Foundation (IPD) continues to be  at the forefront of the fight against infectious diseases and is expanding its vaccine manufacturing capacity. 

The Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) initiative is identifying genetic factors that influence disease susceptibility, the response to treatments, and adverse drug reactions specific to African populations. 

Such knowledge has the potential to inform tailored treatments and medical approaches to prevalent diseases, ultimately reducing their burden on the continent. It can also allow for more precise and personalized interventions for new disease threats.

The Africa CDC’s Africa Pathogen Genomics Initiative is working closely with African countries and research organizations to boost countries’ capacity for genomic surveillance for infectious diseases. This is boosting the ability of African countries to identify, control and manage disease threats, helping to inform treatment for these diseases while building countries’ resilience against them.

We see a similar picture of optimism when we look at the innovations emerging from young African entrepreneurs, which are helping to bridge healthcare access gaps. Take for example, Rwanda-based startup Babyl, which is harnessing telemedicine to break-down barriers to healthcare access while alleviating the burden on healthcare workers in remote areas. Babyl a telemedicine startup that originated in the United Kingdom, has extended its tentacles to several African countries, including Rwanda, where it has implemented telemedicine solutions to improve healthcare access and support healthcare workers in remote areas. 

The example of Babyl showcases how African entrepreneurs are utilizing innovative technologies to address healthcare challenges. The startup’s telemedicine platform is allowing healthcare workers to interact with patients remotely through text or video, removing the need for patients to travel often long distances to access healthcare services. Despite promising research and innovations, much more needs to be done in the way of investment to scale up scientific research and Africa’s potential for innovation in healthcare. Events like the Grand Challenges annual meeting, and Prix Galien Africa, which will take place in Senegal later this year, can be leveraged to strengthen greater investment in research in Africa.

As we mark Africa Day this year, let’s all work together – governments, the private sector, civil society, domestic and international partners – to invest more resources to bridge the gap in Africa’s healthcare science research and innovation. Only by scaling up these investments can Africa unlock faster progress towards the sustainable development and quality healthcare the continent’s people deserve.

Dr. Rose Leke is leading African immunologist, parasitologist and malariologist and a well-respected figure in global health and immunology. She serves as the Chair of Gavi’s Independent Review Committee.

Cheikh Oumar Seydi is the Director for Africa for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

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