By Esther Nakkazi
A new herbal malaria medicine; a fuel-free incinerator for media waste in rural areas; a quick, cheap dipstick diagnostic test for schistosoma - a parasitic disease that affects more than 50 percent of people in Africa, are some of the products that could be effective against local problems and illnesses.
But all these products referred to as ‘stagnant technologies’ with the potential to save many lives, are languishing in Africa’s laboratories due to a lack of commercialization and marketing experience.
25 such products were identified languishing in health research institutions in Africa, 16 involved traditional plant products while the rest were new drug molecules, diagnostics, vaccines and medical devices.
"If Africans are to prevail over diseases they must unleash the formidable talents of their own scientists and entrepreneurs because sustainable solutions to Africa's health problems rest with the home team,” said Peter Singer the director McLaughlin-Rotman Centre (MRC) for Global Health in Canada.
Singer warns that many Africans would die if they wait on scientists from elsewhere to invent and market the health products like drugs, vaccines, diagnostics Africa needs.
Indeed, the homegrown science solutions and approved by the World Health Organisations (WHO) are decaying in Africa labs.
For instance researchers at Uganda’s Makerere University developed an easy-to-use, cheap, WHO-approved portable medical-waste incinerator.
Now idle at the campus for years, the incinerator could solve the problem of hospital waste management in rural areas, especially during programmes like mass polio immunization.
The uniqueness of the incinerator is that it uses no fuel other than the medical waste and achieves temperatures of 800 degrees C.
In Kenya, a product called Sunguprot from the plant Tylosema Fassoglensis, whose developers’ claim it can help manage HIV symptoms lies at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).
Research advancing the product stopped due to lack of advanced scientific equipment to isolate compounds and funding to carry out clinical trials that have enabled further development and validation.
Meanwhile, at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya, researchers have patented human odors that effectively repel mosquitoes.
Imagine walking around with an odor that just repels mosquitoes. Maybe it would eliminate malaria from east Africa instantly. But this too needs further research, now pending negotiations with a multinational company.
These efforts could be complemented by an herbal, anti-malarial medicine, Nibima, from a traditional plant Cryptolepis sanguinolenta, under development at the Centre for Scientific Research into Plant Medicines in Ghana.
"Clearly, many Africans have the needed talent and know-how. However, the seeds of their efforts need careful nurturing by both donors and African governments at all levels,” said Ken Simiyu a researcher with MRC.
According to Simuyu, all that is required are creative institutions and coherent policies that reduce risk, build on local strengths, and promote the effective use of local health research.
Studies show that with the right partners and incentives along with support from governments at home, Africans have the scientific creativity and entrepreneurial talent to improve local health and prosper at the same time.
For instance in Tanzania, local funding, economies of scale, technology transfer, and partnerships all helped the A to Z Textile Company become one of the world's largest producers of long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets, cost-effectively producing tens of millions of nets.
A to Z Textile Company succeeded despite regulatory issues, procurement rules, and other barriers.
And, the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), for example, constructed a full-scale manufacturing facility to produce HIV and Hepatitis B diagnostic kits.
Although the KEMRI factory idled for sometime because the government stopped purchasing the products, the institute overcame them through diversification, partnerships and changes in culture.
It diversified its product line to include a disinfectant and modified the rapid HIV and Hepatitis B test kits. It also adopted an open innovation business model, which linked it with investors, research partnerships, licensing opportunities, and revenue from contract manufacturing.
In the long term it instituted a marketing division, developed an institutional IP policy, and trained its scientists on innovation management.
By that KEMRI has shown how research institutes in Africa can turn science into health solutions for local health problems, thus reducing Africa's health burden.
These research papers funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Genome Canada were published (with open public access) mid last month and produced by Canada's McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health.
They draw on experiences of authorities, researchers and entrepreneurs in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Madagascar, Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, and Uganda.
While some are languishing, other products may save millions of African lives one day and also expand into global markets but only if they cease being stagnant technologies.
NB ( I wrote this article months ago as soon as we had a press briefing but my editor did not publish it. The fate of science stories oh!)