High-tech SADC: health and agri innovations

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SADC innovators are applying big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and other smart technologies in medicine, forensics, farming and diagnostics.

Gift Gana developed the Dr CADx app that scans medical photographs to help radiologists diagnose cancer more efficiently, and with high accuracy. Because radiologists are in short supply in many African regions, the app bridges a key diagnostic gap for the continent.

“We can save lives, especially in the marginalised areas of the developing world, where the availability of radiologists is very low,” said Gana at a recent SANBio event. In his home country of Zimbabwe, he says, there are only 17 radiologists for the entire country, most of them in the capital Harare, and most serving the private sector.

While Gana’s app uses algorithms to find breast cancer where trained human eyes may fail, researchers at the African Institute of Biomedical Science and Technology (AiBST) in Harare have applied algorithms to drug dosing. Their GeneDose technology calculates how much antiretroviral treatment a patient needs based on their genetics, in order to better avoid individual negative side effects of the anti-HIV medication.

Another algorithm powers the Umbiflow device, developed by South African researchers to prevent thousands of still births every year. The device determines the placental blood flow in unborn children - it can detect a condition called absent flow, which can put a fetus in real danger of dying.

The availability of vast genetic data has led to innovations such as a forensic rape kit, custom-built for African genetic diversity by South African company Inqaba Biotech.

The kit has reduced the cost and boosted the efficacy of bringing perpetrators of rape to book through DNA identification. Inqaba Biotech identified important biomarkers found in Africa, created a database that takes into account the genetic diversity found on the continent, and they are now giving this data to law enforcement agencies in the SADC region.

The Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Initiative also draws on genetic data to study the genomics and environmental factors involved in diseases that affect Africans. The network chiefly connects and upskills African investigators, but it also develops biorepositories and bioinformatics networks, as well as the associated cloud computing infrastructures required.

Zooming completely out from the molecular level of genetics, troves of earth observation data collected by satellites may also boost health in the SADC region, as well as agriculture.

FruitLook, for instance, is an open access online platform that farmers can use to monitor vineyards and orchards. It uses satellite imagery and weather information to help farmers in the Western Cape of South Africa to finely monitor crop growth, crop water use and leaf nitrogen content.

Satellites can also track malaria outbreaks and spraying programmes. Researchers began piloting an app called mSpray in the Vhembe district of Limpopo in 2012: spray workers record information about their activities on their cellphones, and the data could over time become a comprehensive database for spraying patterns. Another app, Malaria Buddy, gives travellers information about malaria risk, prevention and symptoms in malaria endemic areas.

From apps that track or learn to diagnose disease better than doctors, to pinpointing individual therapies and perpetrators of crime, it is clear that advances in computing, AI and big data are pushing bioentrepreneurship and biotechnology forward in the SADC region in line with policy frameworks like the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024.

The SANBio network and partners hope to continue this push and provide support where needed.