Low-tech health: ZubaBox and African telehealth

Q&A: Anja Ffrench, marketing and communications director Computer Aid, and Fred Mweetwa, chief executive, Macha Works

  • Click here to read the cover feature about consumer brands using technology to enter the health sector.
  • Hi-tech health: Ford, click here to read a Q+A with Pim van der Jagt, managing director Ford Research Centre.
  • Click here for an O2 Health case study.

Marketing Week (MW): How can companies’ IT equipment benefit healthcare in Africa?

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Anja Ffrench (AF): In sub-Saharan Africa, there is an average of 12 doctors per 100,000 people, compared with Europe, which has 340 doctors per 100,000 people. So there is a massive shortage of specialists. One of our projects is to provide laptops, digital cameras and webcams to doctors in remote areas of Africa so they can take an X-ray or a photo of a wound and send it to a specialist in the capital city, who can diagnose how it needs to be treated.

We also work with the African Medical Research Foundation, which has put together an elearning programme to help nurses train from certificate to diploma level so they can deal with new and re-emerging diseases such as HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.

MW: What is the idea behind the ZubaBox that was supplied by Computer Aid to Macha in Zambia?

AF: ZubaBox came about because there are vast areas that do not have electricity. It is to enable us to reach the most rural, isolated and poor communities. It is basically a shipping container with 11 monitors above one computer, so it is low-power, with solar panels on the roof. It can be put in the middle of the desert so they can access the internet via a satellite link through solar power.

We have sent three so far – two to Zambia and one to Kenya. In Zambia, one is 50 miles from the nearest surfaced road. They cannot use mobile phones in that community. It is used by medical professionals who want to communicate with specialists and students.

MW: What problems has this helped overcome for healthcare in Macha?

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Fred Mweetwa (FM): Macha is 380km from the capital, Lusaka. Before the introduction of the internet, doctors did not want to come to Macha. After the internet was introduced, we have retained a lot of specialist doctors. One doctor has just finished his studies in America. If it was not for the internet, he would not have stayed in Macha.

The pharmacy department in Macha is now able to buy medicine online and go to Lusaka to collect it. Before the introduction of the internet, they had to go to Lusaka without knowing if the medicine was there. They would come back and wait for maybe three weeks, then go again to Lusaka only to find the medicine had been taken by other rural health centres or other hospitals.

MW: How has the technology affected Macha’s ability to tackle specific diseases?

FM: If someone is discovered to be HIV-infected, they give him a card and next time he comes, all the information about the history of the patient will be there on the computer. It has made life much easier. Before that there were books, and books are easily misplaced.

Right now in Macha, malaria has been kicked into touch. Malaria was a killer disease in Macha and the surrounding area, but because the experts who are doing research into malaria have access to the internet, they are able to communicate with their fellow researchers in America at Johns Hopkins University. If I am discovered with the malaria parasite then, before I suffer from malaria, they will start giving me the medicine.

MW: What does the future hold for ZubaBox?

AF: We would like to send 10 more over the next year and we are looking for companies to sponsor a ZubaBox. For £22,000 they can have their brand put on the side and can have it put in a country they are working in. Computer Aid asset-tracks every single piece of donated equipment that comes into our workshop, to show exactly where it goes in a developing country. A lot of companies like that because we can then provide them with feedback on exactly where equipment has gone. Brands can be involved as much as they want, so if they want to send out staff to do volunteering, we can even offer that.

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