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This article is part of the supplement: Health innovation in sub-Saharan Africa

Open Access Research

Science-based health innovation in sub-Saharan Africa

Sara Al-Bader, Hassan Masum, Ken Simiyu, Abdallah S Daar and Peter A Singer*

Author Affiliations

McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, at the University Health Network and University of Toronto, MaRS Centre, South Tower, Suite 406, 101 College Street, Toronto, Ontario, M5G 1L7, Canada

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BMC International Health and Human Rights 2010, 10(Suppl 1):S1  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-10-S1-S1

Published: 13 December 2010

Abstract

In recent years emerging markets such as India, China, and Brazil have developed appropriate business models and lower-cost technological innovations to address health challenges locally and internationally. But it is not well understood what capabilities African countries, with their high disease burden, have in science-based health innovation.

This gap in knowledge is addressed by this series in BMC International Health and Human Rights. The series presents the results of extensive on-the-ground research in the form of four country case studies of health and biotechnology innovation, six studies of institutions within Africa involved in health product development, and one study of health venture funds in Africa. To the best of our knowledge it is the first extensive collection of empirical work on African science-based health innovation.

The four country cases are Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The six case studies of institutions are A to Z Textiles (Tanzania), Acorn Technologies (South Africa), Bioventures venture capital fund (South Africa), the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research (IMRA; Madagascar), the Kenyan Medical Research Institute (KEMRI; Kenya), and Niprisan’s development by Nigeria’s National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development and Xechem (Nigeria).

All of the examples highlight pioneering attempts to build technological capacity, create economic opportunities, and retain talent on a continent significantly affected by brain drain. They point to the practical challenges for innovators on the ground, and suggest potentially helpful policies, funding streams, and other support systems.

For African nations, health innovation represents an opportunity to increase domestic capacity to solve health challenges; for international funders, it is an opportunity to move beyond foreign aid and dependency. The shared goal is creating self-sustaining innovation that has both health and development impacts. While this is a long-term strategy, this series shows the potential of African-led innovation, and indicates how it might balance realism against opportunity. There is ample scope to learn lessons more systematically from cases like those we discuss; to link entrepreneurs, scientists, funders, and policy-makers into a network to share opportunities and challenges; and ultimately to better support and stimulate African-led health innovation.