Cultivating Med-Tech Innovation in Africa

ENG Lab Spearheads UN Effort to Improve Continent's Health Outcomes

By Mark Dwortzan

Assistant Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME) (right) and the Honorable Trasizio Thomie Gowelo, MP, Deputy-Minister of Information and Communications Technology from Malawi (left), who inaugurated the new biomedical engineering initiative at the planning meeting of the UNECA African Technology Development and Transfer Network. The meeting was held at the UN Conference Centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on May 2, 2011. (Photo courtesy of the UNECA.)
Assistant Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME) (right) and the Honorable Trasizio Thomie Gowelo, MP, Deputy-Minister of Information and Communications Technology from Malawi (left), who inaugurated the new biomedical engineering initiative at the planning meeting of the UNECA African Technology Development and Transfer Network. The meeting was held at the UN Conference Centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on May 2, 2011. (Photo courtesy of the UNECA.)

Despite decades of importing medical technologies from the U.S. and other developed countries, Africa’s rate of disease prevalence remains among the highest in the world. Recognizing the limitations of this approach, healthcare experts have begun to look inward for solutions. A growing number envision a rapid expansion of Africa’s nascent biomedical engineering capability to promote healthcare technology innovation and entrepreneurship across the African continent, and, ultimately, improve health outcomes.

“Africa spends a significant amount of its modest resources in purchasing medical devices, but the technical skills to operate, maintain and upgrade the devices are either lacking or still emerging,” said Assistant Professor Muhammad Zaman (BME), director of Boston University’s Laboratory for Engineering Education & Development (LEED) and a faculty member at BU’s Center for Global Health & Development. “Introduction of biomedical engineering could change this scenario and improve healthcare on the continent.”

Toward that end, LEED has teamed up with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the Republic of Korea to launch an initiative called Engineering Expertise to Improve Health Outcomes in Africa. Focused on university-based training in the design, improvement and management of medical devices, the initiative seeks to develop a medical device engineering design competition; start biomedical engineering departments at interested universities; create a summer institute on biomedical engineering innovation for topnotch students taught by leading experts in the field; and offer ongoing short courses on medical device innovation and sustainability.

“The idea is to create capacity for innovators—people who are not just fixing equipment or addressing small-scale challenges, but who will come up with the next generation of drugs and technologies,” said Zaman, whose organization, LEED, is providing technical support to the initiative. With financial support from the Republic of Korea and the UNECA (where Zaman serves as a technical member in the Science and Technology Council), the partners recently began a pilot program in Zambia, Kenya and South Africa.

Created just one year ago by Zaman from College of Engineering funding he received as winner of the College’s 2010 Innovative Engineering Education Faculty Fellowship, LEED has developed a cadre of more than 20 ENG research scientists, PhD and undergraduate students and other researchers with the knowledge and skills to address engineering challenges in the developing world. 

To promote that capability in Africa, Zaman and the LEED group are now formulating engineering design competition rules and connecting teams with mentors, helping to start the first biomedical engineering departments in Kenya and Zambia and organizing the biomedical engineering innovation summer institute. 

“We hope to create a generation of innovators who are able to look at the complexities and challenges on the African continent and come up with innovative solutions that are competitive the world over,” said Zaman, “so that anybody finding a similar problem in Asia, North or South America can say, this is the appropriate technology that addresses the situation. As a result, African citizens will no longer be just the recipients of technology, but also the exporters of technologies to address these challenges.”

Portions of this report are based on a press release issued by the ECA Information and Communication Service.
 

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