COVID-19: Innovators mobilize to help developing countries

African Innovators are among 20 Grand Challenges Canada innovations mobilizing to assist developing countries through global pandemic. Their novel, affordable ways include those meant to acquire medical oxygen, ventilators, masks and other critically-needed COVID-19 supplies and services in the most under-resourced continent.

In the past decade, the innovations received GCC support in several forms, including over $16 million provided by the Government of Canada, based on the criteria of “bold ideas with big impact” in global health. These projects now offer critical resources, ideas and solutions for low-resource countries struggling to meet an acute need for affordable, locally-sourced products and services, most urgently:

  • Medical oxygen, ventilators and related training
  • Local manufacturing of personal protective equipment for health care workers
  • Life-saving information for hard-to-reach populations

Says Karina Gould, Canada’s Minister of International Development: “To overcome the unprecedented global health challenges presented by COVID-19, the world needs innovation and ingenuity. Over the past 10 years, Canada’s funding for Grand Challenges Canada has helped hundreds of innovative ideas become a reality. Today, some of those very ideas are saving lives by helping people prevent and respond to COVID-19 and other health challenges in developing countries.”

Adds GCC co-CEO Dr. Karlee Silver: “Innovation in global health means provisioning low-resource areas with needed goods and services that are better, faster and cheaper.  Such solutions take time to develop, scale up, and evaluate as they transition to scale.”

“With Canadian Government funding, we have supported a portfolio of solutions over the past 10 years that are particularly relevant to the developing world’s COVID-19 response. It is during times like these that the value of the investment in innovation becomes most obvious.”

“Grand Challenges Canada is lending expertise and other support to the innovators as they focus on the pandemic, and several will receive additional funding as needed to help accelerate their response to COVID-19.  Many others among GCC’s 228 active innovation projects are working to mitigate the fallout of COVID-19 on reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health services disrupted by pandemic control measures,” says Dr. Silver.

“We have been guided by local governments’ needs, with locally supplied medical oxygen topping the list — a resource in tragically short supply and high demand throughout much of the developing world.”

The innovators leading these 20 solutions are based in 11 countries — Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Brazil, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Australia, Canada and the United States — and operate in low-resource areas throughout Africa and beyond, from the Amazon to the Himalayas.

  • 4 projects provide medical oxygen
  • 2 produce rugged, battery backed-up ventilators
  • 1 is pivoting from affordable locally-produced sanitary pads to low-cost masks
  • 2 offer innovative diagnostic / imaging equipment
  • 7 support remote patient care, monitoring and essential products delivery
  • 1 supports mental health care
  • 2 support safe water, sanitation and hygiene
  • 1 supports at-home education

2) Hewa Tele (Kenya)

Hewa Tele Limited delivers reliable, cost-effective, life-saving medical oxygen to health facilities in Kenya that have little or no access to it otherwise, operating production plants in partnership with governments and hospitals.  An associated NGO provides relevant training for healthcare staff.

Currently serving a population of 15 million with GCC support, Hewa Tele will now provide medical-grade oxygen to Nairobi’s COVID-19 isolation hospital, with a set of cylinders dedicated solely to that facility, and will gear up to meet the oxygen needs of a growing number of patients.  Its expansion plans include hiring additional staff to facilitate 24-hour coverage, leasing more distribution vehicles, adding new oxygen cylinders to its inventory, and training health care staff to administer oxygen safely.


2) (South Africa) has created MomConnect, a free WhatsApp-based text messaging platform to promote healthy pregnancies and infant care. Registered users receive biweekly advice tailored to each stage of motherhood, including clinical visit reminders and information on health services, with a feature allowing mothers to question Health Ministry employees, and to offer direct feedback on public health services.

A proven success scaling up nationally in South Africa, has now introduced HealthAlert, a WhatsApp-based helpline disseminating accurate, timely COVID-19 information, with automated answers to frequently asked questions, relieving call centre traffic.  Machine learning and its ability to understand natural language enable automatic triage advice and large volume conversations. Insights from real-time data support effective systems-level COVID- 19 decision-making. South Africa has launched HealthAlert as COVID-19 Connect, while the World Health Organization has launched HealthAlert for WhatsApp globally.

Mental health

1) Friendship Bench DigitalZimbabwe

Friendship Bench is an accessible, approachable problem-solving intervention offering cognitive behavioural treatment for common mental disorders beyond the psychiatrist’s office.

Developed in Zimbabwe with GCC funding, the Friendship Bench offers a proven, one-on-one therapy delivered by trained community health workers (“grandmothers”) on the grounds of municipal health clinics.

Tens of thousands of people have been treated at 72 clinics in four cities across Zimbabwe since 2016, and studies have documented that Friendship Bench users are three times less likely to experience depression and four times less likely to have symptoms of anxiety. Transitioning to scale as part of Zimbabwe’s Mental Health Strategy for 2019-2030, the model has been applied in diverse contexts, including Malawi, Zanzibar and New York City.

Partnered with Inuka Hero — an affiliated, SMS-based mental health support service also initiated with GCC support — the Friendship Bench program has been adapted for remote COVID-19 pandemic response, delivered free of charge via phone and SMS by trained non-professionals, enabling those in need to access effective, evidence-based psychological support while maintaining social distancing protocols.


Remote sensing

1) North Star Alliance East Africa (Kenya)

With high risk populations (i.e. truckers and sex workers) in mind, North Star Alliance has created a network of semi-mobile “Blue Box” facilities — shipping containers repurposed as health clinics situated along major transport routes in six sub-Saharan Africa countries.

GCC-funded programming includes multi-sectoral Crisis Response Teams to combat violence against sex workers, and an electronic medical records platform to follow and manage health data for highly-mobile, hard-to-track populations, and was already attracting the attention of local governments for its ability to serve hard-to-reach populations.

North Star now serves a key role in minimizing COVID-19 transmission within high-risk demographics, supporting infection prevention and control and health education via the Blue Box facilities, while its cross-border electronic health records system may help monitor the health of frequent high-risk travellers.


3) Healthy Entrepreneurs Uganda (Uganda)

Healthy Entrepreneurs’ integrated, end-to-end supply chain business involves a network of trained micro-entrepreneurs delivering affordable, reliable health products and services to rural women and children. Transitioning to scale with GCC support, the system offers soap, sanitizer, disinfectant, fever-reducing medications and other goods essential for containing COVID-19.  IT is operating in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, and expanding into other African countries. A telemedicine platform facilitated by the organization allows for remote triage, risk assessment and referrals for last mile populations / self-isolated homes.  It will also promote COVID-19-related knowledge and awareness, preventing rumours and misinformation.


Educational services

1) Ubongo Learning Ltd. (Tanzania)

With GCC support, Ubongo locally produces culturally-relevant, multi-lingual, multi-media “edutainment” and other learning resources for young children and caregivers in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. TV and radio shows deliver engaging stories, animations and songs that teach children early numeracy, language and literacy, motor development, socio-emotional learning and good health / wellbeing, with complementary content and guidance for parents and caregivers to support home learning.

In light of COVID-19-related school closures across Africa, Ubongo is freely offering its library of TV and radio content, as well as public service announcements and educational videos to support health and hygiene.