“What’s New?” This is the question engraved on a medallion for the Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research. Johnson & Johnson (J&J) created the award in 2014 to honor Janssen, a prominent pharmaceutical researcher who passed away in 2003. Janssen would pose this two-word question daily to his research and development lab. Now, every year, the award is given to an innovative and passionate scientist or team of scientists alongside a $200,000 prize as part of J&J’s Africa Innovation Challenge.
The Africa Innovation Challenge
The challenge is part of J&J’s Champions of Science initiative. Seema Kumar, J&J’s vice president of innovation, global health and policy communication, explains that the initiative is designed to “champion science” because “science needs champions.” The 2016 launch of J&J’s Africa Innovation Challenge 1.0 was part of a geo-specific initiative to support scientific advancements in Africa. Such developments are key to improving healthcare in impoverished areas.
J&J sought applications from Africa-based entrepreneurs who were creating new healthcare services and products in “early childhood development and maternal health,” “empowering young girls” and “overall family well-being.” Winners received mentorship from J&J’s team of researchers, engineers and scientists as well as up to $100,000 in funding.
The Need for Innovation
Access to healthcare is often a hurdle throughout Africa. Twenty-seven of the world’s 28 poorest countries are located in Sub-Saharan Africa. As of 2015, the majority of the world’s poor reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the average poverty rate is 41%. In comparison, data from 2018 suggests that approximately 8.6% of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty.
With such high rates of poverty, it is estimated that less than 50% of Africans have access to modern healthcare facilities. In 2009, sub-Saharan Africa spent only 6.1% of its GDP on healthcare. For the majority of African countries, less than 10% of their GDP goes toward health expenditures. The continent consequently has the highest mortality rates in the world and is the sole continent in which deaths from chronic diseases are outnumbered by deaths from infectious diseases.
J&J’s Africa Innovation Challenge aims to alter these statistics and improve healthcare in Africa through science-based initiatives. After naming three Africa Innovation Challenge winners in 2017, J&J launched the Africa Innovation Challenge 2.0 in 2018. This time, the six challenge categories were “botanical solutions,” “packaging innovations,” “mental health,” “health worker support,” “digital health tools” and “essential surgical care.” J&J announced six winners, who each received up to $50,000 in funding. These are the nine companies that have won the Africa Innovation Challenge since its launch in 2016.
Winners of the Africa Innovation Challenge
- 2017 winner SaCoDé makes washable and re-wearable pads that tie around the waist for girls and women in Burundi. The pads prevent infection among the many Burundian women who cannot afford disposable pads. Since winning the Africa Innovation Challenge, SaCoDé has opened two new manufacturing locations and created jobs for 20 women in Burundi.
- 2017 winner Innov Asepsis makes hands-free faucets. There is an approximately 60% chance of contracting an infection from unclean faucet handles in Uganda, but these hands-free faucets reduce the risk of infection by eliminating contact. PedalTaps fit onto existing sinks to reduce the spread of diseases related to faucet handles.
- 2017 winner J-Palm is a makeup and skincare brand made from cold-pressed palm oil. Makeup products imported into Liberia are affordable and popular but are often made with chemicals that may be toxic. J-Palm addresses this issue by providing customers with affordable, safe makeup products. The company supports local farmers and has created 330 new jobs in Liberia.
- 2019 winner LifeBank is a digital platform with the goal of increasing safety, efficiency and efficacy in Nigeria’s blood supply chain. Approximately 8% to 14% of HIV cases in Nigeria are a consequence of poor safety and regulatory measures in the blood donation system. LifeBank works to deliver the necessary blood for transfusions to Nigerian hospitals in less than 45 minutes to improve the quality of the blood supply chain.
- 2019 winner The Hope Initiative uses a validated metric to measure “hope among nurses and mothers” in Rwanda and to “understand how hope intersects with healthcare worker burnout and perinatal health outcomes,” according to the J&J website. An estimated 50% of healthcare workers are classified as “high risk” for experiencing burnout. Based on demonstrated research that hope decreases burnout, The Hope Initiative’s goal is to diminish burnout among emergency care workers by identifying the “interventions that positively influence hope.”
- 2019 winner Dreet is a Botswanan phone application that uses hearing device tests and remotely connects children in rural Africa to healthcare professionals. Approximately 67% of the world’s hearing-impaired population resides in developing countries. The Dreet application helps families navigate life with a hearing-impaired child while working to mitigate high or unnecessary healthcare expenses.
- 2019 winner Crib A’ Glow is a “solar-powered, foldable phototherapy crib provided to hospitals, health centers and parents” in communities across Nigeria to treat infant jaundice, according to the J&J website. Infant jaundice most commonly occurs when babies’ livers have not matured sufficiently in order to remove a chemical compound called bilirubin from the bloodstream. An estimated 6 million babies worldwide do not receive treatment for jaundice. Left untreated, jaundice can cause hearing loss, developmental issues, cerebral palsy and, in some cases, death. Crib A’ Glow helps to give poor infants a chance.
- 2019 winner Uganics manufactures mosquito-repelling soap that is both affordable and organic. Africa has the world’s highest rates of malaria transmission. In 2018, the continent was home to 93% of the world’s malaria cases and 94% of malaria-related deaths. Sixty-seven percent of those deaths were children. Uganics’s soap helps prevent malaria from spreading in Uganda.
- 2019 winner M-SCAN aims to help pregnant women in rural Ugandan communities who do not have access to ultrasounds. The company’s device uses a portable probe and smartphone, laptop or tablet to perform ultrasounds. This device helps healthcare professionals and/or midwives prepare for any risks that may arise during delivery.
The winning companies, or “Champions of Science,” have helped increase healthcare access among Africa’s poor while also improving healthcare safety. Through J&J’s Africa Innovation Challenge, these sustainable solutions to public health problems have also created jobs, providing workers with stable incomes and helping boost countries’ economies. By expanding support and funding for public health innovations, companies, organizations and governments can continue to “champion” change.
– Zoe Engels