Friday, September 25, 2020

WHO records show a steady decline of COVID-19 cases in Africa

By Esther Nakkazi

The African region has seen a steady decline in new COVID-19 cases over the past two months, the World Health Organisation reports. 

Starting 20 July to September 20th, 77,147 new cases were reported, down from 131,647 recorded from May 20th to mid-July. Deaths attributed to COVID-19 have also remained low in the region.

The cases are also mostly among people below 60 years of age who contribute to about 91% of COVID-19 infections in sub-Saharan Africa and over 80% of cases are asymptomatic, the WHO has observed. 

The pandemic has largely been in a younger age group and has been more pronounced in a few countries, suggesting country-specific aspects are driving the pattern of disease and death.

“The downward trend that we have seen in Africa over the past two months is undoubtedly a positive development and speaks to the robust and decisive public health measures taken by governments across the region,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

The decline over the past two months have been attributed to a variety of socio-ecological factors such as low population density and mobility, hot and humid climate, lower age group as well as early and strong public health measures taken by governments across the region. 

Even in the most-affected countries including Algeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, and Senegal infections are dropping every week over the past two months.

By 20th September, twenty-nine countries recorded a decrease in new cases, with 20 of them registering a decrease of more than 20%; Sao Tome and Principe (89%), Mauritius (75%), Botswana (69%), Seychelles (67%), Lesotho (61%), Senegal (55%), Malawi (47%), Mauritania (46%), Liberia (44%), Gambia (39%), Rwanda (38%), Ghana (37%), Zambia (34%), Burundi (33%), Burkina Faso (30%), Côte d'Ivoire (30%), Zimbabwe (28%), Namibia (27%), Sierra Leone (23%) and Eswatini (20%). Only Eritrea and the United Republic of Tanzania did not officially submit any report.

As of 22 September 2020, a cumulative total of 1,149 940 COVID-19 cases was reported in the region, including 1,149, 939 confirmed, with one probable case reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. South Africa has consistently registered more than half, 58% (663,282) of all, reported confirmed cases in the region.

The other countries that have reported large numbers of cases are Ethiopia (70,422), Nigeria (57 613), Algeria (50,214), Ghana (46,062), Kenya (37,218), Cameroon (20,690), Côte d’Ivoire (19,327), Madagascar (16,136) and Senegal (14,759). These 10 countries collectively account for 87% (995 723) of all reported cases.

However, WHO has warned Africa against complacency as other regions of the world that have experienced similar trends find that as social and public health measures are relaxed, cases start ramping up again. 

In recent weeks, Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire which are among the countries that have recorded a decline in infections since mid-July, have seen a slight increase in cases. In most African countries schools are beginning to open and lockdowns have been lifted which could see a resurge in cases.

“Africa has not witnessed an exponential spread of COVID-19 as many initially feared,” said Dr. Moeti. “But the slower spread of infection in the region means we expect the pandemic to continue to smolder for some time, with occasional flare-ups.”

WHO still cautions that It is crucial that countries maintain public health measures that have helped curb the spread of COVID-19 to limit further infections and deaths.

“The response in African countries needs to be tailored to each country’s situation moving forward as we see different patterns of infection even within a country. Targeted and localized responses that are informed by what works best in a given region of a country will be most crucial as countries ease restrictions and open up their economies. Blanket approaches to the region or countries are not feasible,” Dr. Moeti said.

References: A virtual press conference on 23 September organized by APO Group.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Schools to innovate together showcasing how to improve education

By Esther Nakkazi 

Selected schools from all over the world will in a global conference learn and innovate together on how to improve education from the grass-roots up. In Uganda, the Wakadogo School in Rom village, Pece Acoyo, Gulu City has won the slot to participate in this ‘world’s biggest education conference’.

Centered on the theme of ‘Learning Today’, each of the 100 schools will host a virtual event to demonstrate how to bring change, based on their own experiences. The schools will gather online to share expertise and best practices in the inaugural World Education Week, from 5-9th October, in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Quality Education (SDG 4) 

The ambition driving World Education Week is to accelerate progress to achieve UN SDG 4, a commitment designed to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all.

“The pupils and teachers of Wakadogo are thrilled to be selected to host a showcase event during World Education Week, which will allow schools all over the world to learn and innovate together, improving education from the grass-roots up," said School principal, Odong Charles Kigundi.  

"With our focus on arts education we are proud to be a founding showcase school of such an ambitious project, and are looking forward to our event,” said Kigundi. 

Vikas Pota, a globally-respected leader and driving force in the education, international development, philanthropy, and technology sectors says by sharing the ways in which Wakadogo has developed its particular expertise, there is hope that others will feel inspired to undertake the same journey to excellence. He says the World Education Week will provide an opportunity not just to learn from them, but to celebrate their successes too.

"What's exciting about World Education Week is the idea of schools around the world sharing their expertise with their peers. After a turbulent period in global education, this is a great way of building back better," says Andreas Schleicher, the Director for Education at the OECD.

"The sheer scale of educators around the globe combining to share expertise, excellence, and wisdom in accelerating learning is hugely impressive. If all educators learn from the best educators of their countries and of the world we would make immense progress in ensuring inclusive, equitable and quality education for all," says Jaime Saavedra, the Global Director for Education at the World Bank.

The one hundred schools have been hand-picked for their expertise across a range of educational themes, such as enhancing employability and life-skills; deepening family and community engagement; the use of technology; a focus on wellbeing; and promoting the science of learning and teaching. Each will share their wisdom with an online audience expected to reach 100,000 worldwide. 

The Wakadogo School will talk about a program that meaningfully engages families and the community to ensure children, especially girls, attend school and learn. World Education Week is an effort by thirty civil society organizations coming together after the record-breaking T4 conference on 30th May that was attended by over 100,000 teachers.

The event will be hosted from the World Education Week website, with registration opening from September 1st.

Monday, August 31, 2020

African businesses shift to cloud technology

African businesses are shifting to the cloud to organize, process, and present their data. In fact, many companies are using services like cloud-based email without noticing that they are embracing cloud technology.

The cloud enables remote working and service provision, regardless of where employees or organizations are located and since the hurdle of the distance between the customer and the company will be negated, African businesses will have access to a wider market just as workers will search for jobs beyond their national reach.

Patrick Ndegwa, the Business Sales Lead for SEACOM says organizations need to be able to adapt at the same speed as this new technology and take advantage of the opportunities it presents which will ensure business continuity and resilience in the long term.

The opportunities for Africa in cloud computing are immense including the Internet of Things which is set to become prominent as companies automate and optimize more processes as connected ‘smart’ machines are used. Interconnected systems mean that business processes and actual equipment will be linked to ensure ease of access and optimization. 

This has the power to significantly improve efficiency for businesses that can get it right, says Ndegwa. "As we progress into this digital world of work, systems will become more interlinked and intertwined, providing opportunities for companies that are ready to take advantage."

The cloud will also allow business flexibility and scalability enabling growth while reducing unnecessary costs as a result of more streamlined operating systems and access to more markets and a wider range of service providers.

Ensuring the safety and security of the business

The importance of security in this new cloud-connected world cannot be stressed enough. As more data is moved to a cloud environment, businesses that don’t take security seriously become more susceptible to data breaches.

User rights need to be properly managed and the relevant software put into place to prevent cyberattacks and data leaks. In addition to this, each individual accessing a system affects the safety of the wider network, so employee training is vital.

Accessing and managing data remotely will need to become a priority. The constant influx of data that is being collected and stored needs to be organised and used strategically. Regular backups are crucial in ensuring that information is safe and easily accessible should the original data be deemed at risk. This will ensure business continuity and reduce downtime.

Companies that stand to win will be those that partner with cloud providers that can help them put the right security measures in place.

According to research by 2025 all of the world’s data is expected to increase by five times. This data is estimated to be worth around 123.2 billion USD. In addition to this, the mobile cloud services market will be worth an estimated 95 billion USD by 2024. This trend also applies to Africa.

As Internet usage in Africa grows, so does the amount of data created - as well as the value of that data. Accessing these huge amounts of data won’t be the biggest challenge - making sense of it will be. Companies that can collect, collate, and analyze the sheer volume of data generated every day by their customers, employees, and other stakeholders stand to gain a lot. If you aren’t organizing your data and using it strategically, you will be left behind.

As we look to the future, the importance of partnering with a provider that can assist your business in meeting its operational needs to remain a top priority. A forward-thinking cloud partner can help your business plan for the future while making the most of the latest innovative technology.

By APO Group on behalf of SEACOM.

Monday, August 24, 2020

$1.5 million project to reduce aflatoxins in Uganda's staple foods launched

By Esther Nakkazi

A $1.5 million project to reduce aflatoxin contamination in staple crops to ensure safe and nutritious food that meets standards for export markets has started in Uganda. Uganda loses an estimated US$38 million annually in lost export opportunities because of aflatoxin.

Aflasafe - a safe and effective natural product for the integrated management of aflatoxin in the maize, sorghum, and groundnut value chain will be developed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the National Agriculture Research Organization (NARO). 

The four-year project is funded by aBi Development Ltd and implemented by Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). 

Aflasafe ( is a natural product made up of strains of A. flavus that do not produce the poison and are coated on sterile sorghum grains. When applied in the field at the right time, it is able to displace toxin-producing Aspergillus strains, thereby reducing aflatoxins and making the crops safe.

"Minimizing aflatoxin contamination would have tremendous economic and health benefits to Uganda," said Dr. Godfrey Asea, Director of the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) during the launch held at NARO Uganda. 

Aflatoxin is a major challenge to the country's efforts towards food self-sufficiency. It is a top priority in Uganda and the government has flagged it in the Agriculture Sector Development Plan, says Dr. Asea. 

Studies estimate that Aflatoxin causes a loss in revenue in the markets due to contaminated products. 
Already Kenya and Tanzania use the
Aflasafe product that has been registered and is commercially available. 

Aflatoxin is a highly poisonous cancer-causing chemical produced by a fungus known as Aspergillus flavus that attacks crops such as maize and groundnut while in the field and in storage when they are not dried and stored properly. Aflatoxin also lowers the body's immunity and causes permanent and irreversible stunting in children and, in cases of acute poisoning, can lead to instant death. 

A country-led Aflatoxin situation analysis report entitled strengthening aflatoxin control in Uganda: policy recommendations by Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA), estimated 3,700 liver cancer cases reported in the country annually are attributable to aflatoxin contamination which translates to between US$144.3 and 577.2 million, or 0.53–2.14% of Uganda’s total GDP.

As well a 2014 study revealed high levels of exposure of Ugandans to aflatoxin. All adults (100%) who participated in the study had aflatoxin (average of 11.5 pg/mg) in their blood, while for children, 95.8% had detectable aflatoxin with an average level of 9.7 pg/mg.

"This project will support field trials on the efficacy of the selected strains in reducing aflatoxin contamination and identify the most effective combinations to form Aflasafe that will be officially released in the country. We will also conduct communication and awareness activities for the population, which is also key to an aflatoxin-free Uganda," said George Mahuku, the project manager at IITA.

Efforts to develop the Uganda-specific Aflasafe started in 2013 under the Aflatoxin Policy and Program for East Africa (APPEAR) project that was funded by USAID. It led to the identification of effective strains of A. flavus to be used to develop the biocontrol product. 

The APPEAR project also provided information on the major maize, groundnut, and sorghum regions that would help to implement the aBi-funded project.

Other project partners include the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF), Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives (MTIC), Ministry of Health (MoH), East Africa Grain Council (EAGC), Grain Council of Uganda (TGCU), Makerere University, and from the development sector, AGRA and aBi.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Higher dose of Hydroxyurea benefits Sickle Cell Anemia more, says study

By Esther Nakkazi

A study in Uganda that could revolutionalize the treatment delivery of sickle cell anemia in sub-Saharan Africa has shown that a higher dose of hydroxyurea is more effective for children.

Hydroxyurea, approved for sickle cell treatment in 1998 by FDA and was originally and it still is a cancer drug is the standard treatment for sickle cell disease in the U.S. and Europe but in much of sub-Saharan Africa, which has a high disease burden, it is not standard treatment. Sickle cell disease has been declared a major public health problem for sub-Saharan Africa by the World Health Organization.

The study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on 25th June 2020 shows that among children with sickle cell anemia in sub-Saharan Africa, hydroxyurea with dose escalation had superior clinical efficacy to that of fixed-dose hydroxyurea, with equivalent safety.

Researchers believe the study findings in Uganda will have a worldwide impact since an escalated dose is not currently the standard in some European countries and other regions.

In the randomized, double-blind trial, seeking to uncover the best treatment for sickle cell disease in sub-Saharan Africa, 200 children were divided into two groups with one group given a fixed dose of hydroxyurea, (approximately 20 mg per kilogram of body weight per day) and the other arm an escalating dose of (approximately 30 mg per kilogram per day).

The arm with the higher dose showed more benefit for the patients prompting the data and safety monitoring board to halt the trial early.

It was done by Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM) in partnership with Robert Opoka, MMed, at Makerere University and Mulago Hospital in Uganda and funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation.

“We hope this will change practice for the overwhelming majority of kids with sickle cell,” says Dr. Chandy John, a physician-scientist at IUSM’s Ryan White Center for Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Global Health and the study’s lead co-investigator.

“You increase the dose and make sure it’s safe at the higher dose because hydroxyurea has some side effects. But people didn’t want to do that in Africa, because it’s more complicated to do.”

The researchers also found that the escalating dose showed similar side effects as the fixed-dose and the financial cost of making the escalated dose standard in sub-Saharan Africa is not significant.

“To see this so unequivocally—to the point that the study’s [monitoring] board stopped the study early because they said the difference was so huge, it was not ethical to continue having two groups. None of us, including our sickle cell experts, expected the differences would be so huge. We were really shocked,” says Dr. Chandy John.

Researchers observed that the higher dose isn’t much more expensive, drug companies are subsidizing the medication, and the Ministry of Health of Uganda could classify it as an essential drug, meaning it would be provided for free.

However, the logistics of moving children in sub-Saharan Africa to the higher dose present challenges as it requires specialized providers - or pediatric hematologists.

“In rural areas, you can’t have a bunch of pediatric hematologists all over the country—that’s not practical, so training is needed for frontline healthcare workers in the basics of what to do with sickle cell,” says Dr. Chandy John.

The researchers' next set of studies is looking at very practical things about implementation where most of the affected children live. The study in Uganda was conducted at Mulago, a national referral hospital in the capital city, Kampala, but most kids with sickle cell are in rural areas with fewer resources.

“One study we’re proposing is…how do we practically implement this in lower-resource settings?,” says Dr. Chandy John. Sickle cell is a genetic disease that is not curable but preventable. In most communities in sub-Saharan Africa, there is a lot of ignorance about sickle cell disease with lots of myths and misconceptions about the disease.

At least 15,000 to 20,000 babies are born with sickle cell disease every year in Uganda, and 80 percent of them die before their 5th birthday. As a single disease, it could be killing more under-fives than any other although the statistics are scanty.


Tuesday, July 21, 2020

New technique revolutionizes eye imaging

By Esther Nakkazi

A new study shows it is possible to take magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) pictures of the eye as it moves across a scene, an artwork, or as we read.

Eye motion is a major confound for MRI in neuroscience or ophthalmology and the technique will open new possibilities in fields such as sleep and dream research and more generally for understanding brain activity in disorders of consciousness.

The new MRI technique published in the journal Progress in Neurobiology reveals for the first time simultaneous details about the eye, its musculature, and oculomotor properties and analysis of its anatomy and neurophysiology according to a press release from the centre Hospitalier universitaire Vaudois.

The study conducted by the Radiology Department of the University Hospital Center and University of Lausanne (CHUV-UNIL) as well as Fondation Asile des aveugles (FAA) is based on recent advances in MRI that allow for taking many snapshots of an object that repeatedly moves, such as the beating heart or moving eye.

Researchers can also study eye position even when the eyes are closed which would open new possibilities in fields such as sleep and dream research as well as more generally for understanding brain activity in disorders of consciousness.

“This is the first time scientists are able to image the eye while it moves, establishing a link between behavior and anatomy," says Dr. Benedetta Franceschielo, a post-doctoral fellow and lead author of the study, who works in the team of Professor Micah Murray, principal investigator of this project.

"This will open a new field of ophthalmic MRI, where we will be finally able to combine multiple assessments within a single, fast, session. The applications are infinite. They span from medical diagnosis to eye-brain mechanisms,” explains Dr. Franceschielo.

Eye movements are a major obstacle for imaging the eye, especially in the cases of children, the elderly, or patients with eye disease. The necessity to fixate ordinarily restricts the range of compliant participants; something often challenging for pediatric and aged populations alike.

“We have removed the onus of maintaining central fixation. Because we used standard MRI equipment and eye-tracking hardware, the approach we have developed and validated is readily deployed to the broad scientific community and impacts not only the breadth of participant inclusion but also the extent of naturalistic paradigms that can be investigated," said Professor Murray about the wider impact of this new technological advancement.

“Five years ago, this research would not have been feasible. Only at the confluence of staggering progress in hardware, software, and methodology development in a university setting did this become possible,” says Professor Stuber.

Supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the team of researchers is composed of neuroscientists, engineers, mathematicians, and optometrists from laboratories of Professors Micah Murray and Matthias Stuber at the Radiology Department of the CHUV- UNIL, the Center for Biomedical Imaging (CIBM), and FAA.

The team is now refining this technique to optimize it and make it versatile for clinical application in the field of ophthalmology. This invention not only represents a turning point in the way scientists study the eyes but also in cognitive neuroscience.

It has also recently demonstrated its value by allowing the creation of new protocols both in the field of diagnosis in ophthalmology as well as in visual rehabilitation.

Reference: Progress in Neurobiology.
Benedetta Franceschiello, Lorenzo Di Sopra, Astrid Minier, Silvio Ionta, David Zeugin, Michael P.Notter, Jessica A.M.Bastianseen, Joao Jorge, Jérôme Yerly, Mat- thias Stuber, Micah M.Murray.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

More agriculture funding in Africa should be devoted to Agroecology

By Esther Nakkazi

The bulk of Africa's agricultural funding should be devoted to agroecology - an agricultural practice that builds sustainable and resilient food systems and will transform food and farming systems, experts advise.

Only 3% of Gates Foundation projects the world’s biggest philanthropic investor in agricultural development in Africa support ‘agroecology’ and 85% of projects funded by the Foundation are limited to developing industrial agriculture. 30% of farms around the world are estimated to have redesigned their production systems around agroecological principles.

Agroecology works with nature combining different plants and animals and uses natural synergies rather than synthetic chemicals to regenerate soils, fertilize crops and fight pests. It also improves farmers’ livelihoods through diverse income streams, resilience to shocks, and short supply chains that retain value in the community meaning it has the potential to reconcile the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability.

However, despite its benefits most funding to Africa's agriculture goes to industrial agriculture - which has failed to assure food and nutritional security in a positive social and environmental context.

“With the compound challenges of climate change, pressure on land and water, food-induced health problems and pandemics such as COVID, we need change now. And this starts with money flowing into agroecology,” says Biovision president Hans Herren.

“We need to change funding flows and unequal power relations. It’s clear that in Africa as elsewhere, vested interests are propping up agricultural practices based on an obsession with technological fixes that are damaging soils and livelihoods and creating a dependency on the world’s biggest agribusinesses. Agroecology offers a way out of that vicious cycle,” says Olivia Yambi, co-chair of IPES-Food.

A new report finds that support for agroecology is now growing across the agri-development community particularly in light of climate change, but this hasn’t yet translated into a meaningful shift in funding flows.

A new report shows funding for Africa agriculture goes to industrial agriculture

The report by BiovisionIPES-Food, and the UK-based Institute of Development Studies reveals that money flows for agricultural development in Africa are to industrial agriculture which has failed to assure food and nutritional security in a positive social and environmental context.

Industrial agriculture is defined as the large-scale, intensive production of crops and livestock, often involving the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers on crops and pesticides.

“Most governments, both in developing and developed countries still favor ‘green revolution’ approaches, with the belief that industrial agriculture is the only way to produce sufficient food,” says  Herren.

“But these approaches have failed,” warns Herren, winner of the 1995 World Food Prize and 2013 Right Livelihood Award. “They have failed ecosystems, farming communities, and an entire continent,” he said.

 As many as 85% of projects funded by the Gates Foundation, the world’s biggest philanthropic investor in agricultural development, are limited to developing industrial agriculture.

The report says 13% of projects by Kenyan research institutes are agroecological. Another 13% focus on replacing synthetic inputs with organic alternatives. Some 51% of Swiss-funded projects have agroecological components, but only a handful are truly systemic.

The Money Flows report looks at investments in sub-Saharan Africa with a focus on Switzerland, a major bilateral donor, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the biggest philanthropic investor in agri-development and Kenya, one of Africa’s leading recipients and implementers of agricultural research for development or AgR4D.

More than 60 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is smallholder farmers, and about 23 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP comes from agriculture, according to the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm.

“What needs to happen is for investments in AgR4D to target agroecology because the industrial agriculture and food model has shown its many weaknesses and failures to assure food and nutritional security in a positive social and environmental context,” says Hans Herren.

Kenya is one of Africa’s leading recipients and implementers of agricultural research for development (AgR4D). The country ranks third in sub-Saharan Africa in spending on agricultural research after Nigeria and South Africa. Around 13% of projects carried out by Kenyan research institutes are ‘agroecological’, with a further 13% of projects focussing on the substitution of synthetic inputs.

To accelerate this shift, the report calls on donors to a shift towards long-term, pooled funding models; require projects to be co-designed with farmers and communities; increase the share of funding going to African organizations; and increase transparency in how their projects are funded, monitored and measured for impact.

The study was carried out by Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development, a not-for-profit organisation involved in ecological and sustainable development projects in Africa, in collaboration with the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), an independent, expert panel that works towards the transition to sustainable food systems, and the UK’s Institute for Development Studies.