Thursday, August 31, 2017

Uganda Government does not support young Innovators

Young innovators at the 2015 CAMTech Medtech hack-a-thon
By Esther Nakkazi

For five straight years, Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) has been holding medical technology or Medtech Hack-a-thons.

The Mbarara University style is like it all starts in the evening with a cocktail reception and dancing through the night.

By 8.00 am the next day, the youngsters mostly undergrads, form teams comprised of different disciplines - engineers, clinicians, entrepreneurs, nurses and at the 5th hack-a-thon, they even had villages health workers as part of some of the teams. That is all inclusive!

Thereafter, they pitch an idea targeting a medical problem. Teams have 48 hours to come up with a prototype.

At this point the hack-a-thon room visibly has unbelievable energy, discussions, prototype materials, the coffee and snacks table is equally busy, soft music is in the background as well mentors are at hand to guide the young innovators.

At the end of this exercise, a jury awards the best and most innovative products with a cash prize and other awards. The Kangroo+ team with an innovation that modifies traditional kangaroo care by combining a thermometer and skin-to-skin contact won this 5th CAMTech UGANDA Medtech Hack-a-thon and took home $782 and access to webinars and peer-to-peer learning engagements.

By all means, these gatherings are fancy for young people, they may put in long hours but equally reap from it so much more. They all eventually become innovators, become better thinkers, learn something new, meet new people and we suppose that they network and collaborate beyond the event.

Year after year, I travel to Mbarara University to document and see what happens at these hack-a-thons. I have seen these hack-a-thons grow bigger as the numbers that apply to attend also increases. This year had 250 participants, in 2015 they had 220, 2014 and 2013 had 150 and 100 participants respectively.

Unfortunately, as the numbers of interested students ready to come up with new innovations grow bigger the local sponsors become fewer. Save for government officials coming over to open and close these young people's innovation functions, the government is not injecting money in there.

I also know that for this year's budget, the government committed 30 billion Uganda shillings or $8.5m to support innovations and technology but these funds will be to aid innovators and researchers to commercialise their products. Unfortunately, this money is not for young innovators.

You would expect local companies to be interested in ‘putting money in what they can see’ as the Ugandan saying goes but no. This time even the usual suspects like mobile phone companies and Uganda Communication Commission (UCC), which is supposed to champion such declined.

Instead, you see many companies and organizations falling over themselves to sponsor the KCCA carnivals, where people go to drink, dance and wine, you wonder where our priorities are placed.

The lack of local funding of Uganda's innovation base ecosystem, which is the basis for young people who are coming up with new innovations that will solve critical health care problems underscores the Uganda government’s claim to care for innovations, new ideas, the youth and finding ways to engage them and make them productive.

How do we even explain that the prize money is down from $3,000 to $2,000 and all this year after year has to come from the Boston based Mass General Hospital Global Health? Surely, no one can realize that at some point these kids will come up with an innovation - either a medical device or an app that can unlock a healthcare problem forever?

I do not want to see these Hack-a-thons that are based at universities stop or the energy and talent in those rooms burn out. I suppose that they are cheap because they are hosted in universities as opposed to fancy hotels.

It is also great that every year we see new faces, hear new ideas and that these hack-a-thons are strengthening the innovation ecosystem. And many products from Mbarara University’s innovations ecosystem will be in the healthcare space soon like Sanidrop, a locally made hand sanitizer that is yet to be commercialized - and again this has been delayed by a government agency that can’t do its work.

So I suggest that next year, a crowdfund should be set up so that the Mbarara University alumni and people like me who care for innovation and healthcare in this country contributes to it.

We can as well ignore the Government and the mobile companies. Maybe they are interested in innovators that do not deliver on their promises and have the same old faces, present the same old stuff using the same old jargon and come in with new wrinkles and more grey hairs each year.


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