Holistic and inclusive health and education for a Smart Africa

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Francesca Walker

The mood at the latest Transform Africa Summit, in Kigali, Rwanda, was all optimism. People spoke with passion about technology’s potential to transform Africa, from smart start-ups to revolutionising lives in a digital age. This feels very significant, as even just a year ago the talk was all gloomy predictions of job losses and increasing inequality.

So what’s caused this shift? One reason for the new rosy outlook could be that there is growing evidence and examples of success in tech in some of the most challenging environments.

The Pathways for Prosperity Commission’s academic co-director, Professor Benno Ndulu, shared some of these principles, from our new report, Positive disruption: health and education in a digital age. More broadly, two of the key messages at the conference resonated especially well with the Commission’s findings in this report: the importance of a ‘systems approach’ to problem-solving when thinking about how to address challenges in health and education, and that of inclusivity – ensuring that these systems and changes work for everyone.

For any clinic to function and deliver quality care, it needs to be well-connected to trained health workers, pharmacies, logistics and supply chains, and regulatory frameworks; all of these elements need to be carefully considered to make sure that technological solutions can have positive impacts in new local contexts. For example, good technology will have no real impact on patients’ health if it cannot be ensured that patients actually come to collect prescribed medicine, or if those medicines are out of stock.  Constraints elsewhere in the medical service therefore need to be considered.

This systems-focused approach was echoed by Babylon Health, who highlighted the organisation’s efforts to ascertain where they could best add value by considering interfaces between service users and the overall health system. Microsoft Health’s Haidar Oligaily also stressed the importance of avoiding data silos in healthcare, an important issue that is also discussed in our new report.

Smart Africa director Lacina Koné highlighted how development goals could be reached more efficiently through smart use of technology, while Rwandan ICT Minister, Paula Ingabire, spoke of the importance of breaking silos and working towards increased connections.

Inclusivity was also clearly on the agenda. Universality of healthcare provision should be a requirement all governments seek to deliver. Access to services – including digital services – is not automatic: affordability and accessibility remain pressing issues, especially in a context where smartphone prices remain equivalent to two months’ income for many people in developing countries.[1]

Conversations around inclusivity must of course place women at the centre of the debate, as Dr Vera Songwe, official observer to the Pathways Commission, highlighted when she spoke at the Leaders’ Summit. She drew attention to the unequal costs of broadband access and significant gender gaps in internet access.

Reflecting on the conference overall Professor Ndulu felt that it resonated particularly well with the work of the Pathways Commission. “The absence of doom and gloom about destructive technology was striking,” he commented, “especially as this was not out of naivety, but instead focused on the promise of positive disruption and the opportunities technology presents to take action, get digitally ready and pursue goals of inclusion. It was also evident that strong new African voices are emerging in the world of technology, including those working for global giants such as Facebook. Finally, I was struck by the strong calls for creating conditions to scale up successful pilots, and the realisation of the need for systemic alignment to do this.”

The real question now is how this positive mood – and moreover the real potential technology offers – can be scaled up in practice to reach everyone, including the poorest and most marginalised men and women.


[1] Pathways for Prosperity Commission (2018). Digital Lives: Meaningful Connection for the Next 3 Billion. https://pathwayscommission.bsg.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2018-11/digital_lives_report.pdf  


Photo credit: Muso, 2014