alexa Trade expos are an innovation gold mine, but Kenya misses out - Daily Nation

Trade expos are an innovation gold mine, but Kenya misses out

Tuesday February 14 2017

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Arab Health is one of the biggest health expos in the world. 

It presents an opportunity for global health solution providers to showcase their new and innovative technologies, and for individual health providers to get acquainted with these advances.

Some of the technologies exhibited this year would greatly enhance the achievement of not just universal healthcare but the health Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for many emerging countries, that is, if they disrupt current health protocols.

To self-disrupt, people must shoulder greater responsibility for their own health. New technologies in the market emphasise the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) model in order to lower the cost of healthcare. 

For example, pregnancy tests in the past required that a woman had to provide either a urine or blood sample. Today, practically 99 per cent of women prefer DIY tests with pregnancy kits that ensure personal privacy, as well as minimal costs in money and time.

Before I make any proposal, let me state that new innovations in healthcare do not seek to replace the doctor. Most are meant to improve efficiency, ensure patient well-being and help doctors do more thinking, rather than waste time and resources on mundane issues before prescribing treatment.

In advanced countries, patients leverage information and communication technologies to send vital signs data regularly to their doctors. 

The results are analysed by doctors to make recommendations about changes in medication or hospitalisation. 

In the market today, there are multiple wearables to provide all kinds of data including blood pressure, pulse rate, electrocardiogram (ECG), non-invasive glucose monitors and even weight measurements.

All these tests do not require a health professional to administer but data produced will give the doctor good knowledge to support an effective prognosis. 

And as we begin to understand the application of the Internet of Things (IoT), such regular data would build up if many more people developed such habits. 

Within a short time, the data would translate to better information. In many ways information leads to knowledge and eventual wisdom in managing our lives.

IoT, as explained by Eric Brown, is "the internetworking of physical devices, vehicles (also referred to as "connected devices" and "smart devices"), buildings, and other items — embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity that enable these objects to collect and exchange data." 

A device like a mobile phone collects data passively from its owner. That data, when analysed in combination with other data, becomes useful in many areas including urban planning. 

Similarly, if we pooled our medical records, the result would be some discovery around the characteristics exhibited by data that may produce beneficial solutions.

The application of nanotechnology in medicine has brought far-reaching disruptions in medical diagnostic testing that will drastically cut the cost of healthcare. 

For example, a group of researchers in California developed a Bar Code Chip that measures the concentrations of dozens of proteins, including those that herald the presence of diseases such as cancer and heart disease, in less than 10 minutes and using just a pinprick's worth of blood.

A 2008 news article on the website of the US National Cancer Institute says:

"The chip offers a significant improvement over the cost and speed of standard laboratory tests that analyse proteins in the blood. In traditional tests, one or more vials of blood are removed from a patient and taken to a laboratory, where the blood is centrifuged to separate whole blood cells from the plasma. The plasma is then assayed for specific proteins. 'The process is labor intensive, and even if the person doing the testing hurries, the tests still take a few hours to complete,' said Dr. Heath. A kit to test for a single diagnostic protein costs about $50."

There are many more patient toolkits for diagnosis that can be created to assist the development of e-health for remote places in Africa. 

There is no justification for total dependence on health professionals when a majority of citizens can begin to take an active role in our care, and in turn, help professions to achieve better diagnosis and subsequent prognosis.

Malaria and typhoid constitute perhaps the most lab work in Kenya, consuming billions of shillings each year in the form of expensive lab tests when simple, cheap toolkits exist. 

We can bring down costs by as much as 50 per cent and use the savings to pay doctors well. 

However, in the public sector, there are no mechanisms to improve efficiency. Performance contracting was supposed to deal with such problems but it was never strictly enforced.


Trade fairs or expos provide an opportunity for emerging countries to not just acquire new ideas but also knowledge to apply new technologies to improve efficiencies.

Many newly industrialised Asian countries exploited trade shows to learn and develop industries by partnering with advanced countries, and most have moved along the learning curve to become fierce competitors of their partners. 

If Africa desires to play part in the emerging fourth industrial revolution, it will fail as we sit and wait to be approached by established organisations from other parts of the world. 

Building assembly plants does not constitute industrialisation. What will matter is how progressive our policies are with respect to local content in locally assembled products and technology transfer. 

These policies must be open so that people know what percentage of local content we are providing and what period it will take to have 100 per cent local content.

If, for example, a pharmaceutical company wants to produce test kits for malaria locally, we should provide the containers, most of which are plastics that we can develop using 3D printing, to drastically lower the cost. 

In essence, we must be part of the problem solving instead of being the passive consumers we have been for decades.

Talking to many participants at the expo, you realise it is not far-fetched for developing countries to seek partners, which most research institutions welcome.

What is lacking, however, is the will of policymakers who attend such conferences with the aim of taking it to another level, where they link what they see to problems we face at home. 

If they did that, our imports bill would decline, new industries would emerge, many youths would find employment and African countries would be on the pathway to exploiting the fourth industrial revolution. 


There is the need, therefore, first, to compel every policymaker attending expos to write a comprehensive report on how what they saw relates to existing problems. 

Second, creating a new department that is dedicated to looking for new ideas and matching them with local start-ups, providing incubation and market opportunities to grow as a strategy to solve local problems and exploiting the emerging fourth industrial revolution.

We are at a critical stage of development. If we miss this revolution as we have missed others, Africa will remain dependent on others for the next many years. 

In my recent book, Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making, which I co-authored with my friend Tim Weiss, I have elaborated on what many people in the world call activist policymaking, which we adopted to create rapid change in Kenya’s ICT sector.

There are policy lessons in this book to help achieve rapid industrialisation. The book is free online and in just two months, we have seen more than 30,000 downloads.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."

Let's start exploiting emerging opportunities as though we were to die tomorrow and learn to apply what we see in successful nations as though we'll live forever.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi's School of Business. Twitter @bantigito