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Telemedicine, health apps: the innovative (and little-known) face of Africa

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Africa is a continent where remote medicine (telemedicine and others) has found application before any other. However, in the last two decades it has become a real laboratory for experiments for technological innovation in the medical field. Yet Africa’s most dynamic and innovative face, even in the health field, suffers from a kind of collective amnesia in the Italian media. This is evident from the fourth edition of «L’Africa MEDIAta»the report presented today in Rome by Amref Health Africa-Italy on the occasion of Africa Day.

Compiled by the Pavia Observatory, it aims to analyze how and to what extent the Italian media tell Africa. All editions of the report are accompanied by a line of continuity: the marginality of communication about Africa and about Africans and people of Afro-descendants in the mainstream media. Still, there is potential and a young dynamic that add another face: for African technology startups compared to 2020, in 2021 there was +113% for investments.

“It is true that many pilot projects and tests have been carried out in Africa. And that’s important,” he says George Kimathi, director Amref Institute for Capacity Development —. There is a need for improve access to health services and treatments: technological innovation can help us and important steps have been taken in that direction. There are requests to improve nutrition and vaccinations for children or services to enable medicines or a doctor’s visit. Now it is it is necessary to step out of the logic of experimentation and apply them more widely »

Common places

«Stories about Africa are often riddled with clichés and false myths that threaten to influence our view of this vast continent: an area as rich in diversity as it is in resources, which seems determined to conquer its future by any means necessary by finding innovative and groundbreaking answers, as documented by various analyses, including the WIPO Global Innovation Index, and as to see every day is also our experience in the field – emphasizes Paola Crestani, president of Amref Health Africa in Italy -. We have long been using new technologies to promote and ensure the right to health in Africa, through actions and services that can improve the training of local health personnel and implement innovative intervention methods. A small, big example of possible transformation that we hope will contribute to a more positive and stubborn representation of Africa» concludes Crestani.

Infotainment, in online media and social media.

The Amref report shows that the Italian media speaks little and often in the wrong way about innovation in Africa. Two facts confirm this: the extreme marginality of the themepresent in specialized magazines but hardly in the mainstream media, and the almost exclusive “external” connotation of the changesusually described as consequences of projects exported from Italy or from the West in general.

In the 75 television programs analyzed, in 829 episodes, only 6% of the frames (50 frames) are devoted to the theme of innovation and development in Africa. This trend is also confirmed by the analysis of the online editions and Facebook pages of the 62 main Italian newspapers and information bodies dedicated to Africa, which shows that during the year only 96 articles and 28 posts on Facebook related to innovation processes in Africa. Of this, the majority is devoted to the economic sector with a focus on collaborative projects starting from Europe with the perception of a continent “under guardianship”. The only examples of complex and continuous stories are the 5G signal distribution networks and the fossil fuel transportation initiatives.

The medical field

As for medical health care and veterinary medicine, they are presented projects that relate to both the use of drones for the delivery of medicines
in hard-to-reach places and on the use of artificial intelligence to ensure greater dissemination of diagnostic tools. In terms of science, the emphasis is on medicine: news is mainly given about medical research in Africa, and in particular vaccine research. The most relevant news concerns the development of a vaccine against malaria, made in Burkina Faso in collaboration with the University of Oxford. The African continent has for many years lagged behind most globally recognized indicators of social and economic development. The necessary investments, especially in education, health care and infrastructure, which are generally very high, they are often difficult to obtain (or allocate), especially because of the serious current emergencies: droughts, conflicts, epidemics and political crises.

Nevertheless, theThe introduction of some technological innovations has made it possible to overcome some important obstacles and generate a positive impact in many sectors of society. A clear example of this is the proliferation of financial services via mobile. Africa has long been characterized by poor coverage of the most common banking services, especially in terms of access to income and thus to withdraw money. A trend that could be reversed thanks to the internet connection via smartphone. The GSMA State of the Industry report counted a whopping 605 million online accounts by 2021 on the continent, of which 53% in sub-Saharan Africa. Unprecedented figures that show how much it is possible to guarantee opportunities, inclusion and emancipation to an increasing number of people thanks to these types of solutions.

Amref’s innovative projects

«Amref strongly believes in innovation to achieve lasting change for the health of the African continent, according to its mission. For example, since 2005 we have been using digital training tools to strengthen the skills and knowledge, not only of the healthcare workforce, but also of the communities in which we work. More recently, we developed an app that provides gender and reproductive health counseling for boys and girls, a particularly important service for the prevention of early pregnancy and forms of violence. Two examples that show the distinctly innovative and avant-garde face of Africa. It’s really important that the media starts reporting on it,” he says George Kimathi, director Amref Institute for Capacity Development.

Amref is the promoter of numerous innovations, in the health sector, “made in Africa”​​ – as George Kimathi recalled at the event – and others that represent a strong collaboration between Italy and the African continent: the
No Uganda for example the Kokono project, in collaboration with De-Lab, Società Benefit and B-Corp™has given a concrete answer to the high mortality rate of children cause of malaria. It is about a portable crib equipped with a mosquito net: an innovative solution as it can protect children’s health while contributing to the empowerment of women, allowing them to work safely while carrying their children.

Also relevant is 3Map – the project developed by the social good company TriM – which enables the collection, recording, analysis and dissemination of information to counter the effects of adverse weather conditions. The system makes it possible share weather reports by returning predictions about temperatures and the probability of precipitation which, distributed from village to village, improve pasture and crop planning and reduce the impact of natural disasters.

To date, two applications – Jibu and Leap – have given more than 250,000 users access to texts and audiovisual courses from their phones. In particular, Jibu has reached more than 70,000 users, Leap even 180,000 (thanks to its usability also on older generation devices, via SMS). That’s how they were trained volunteers and health workers who, thanks to the acquired skills, were able to reach more than 3.5 million people with awareness-raising activities for prevention, first aid and correct nutrition.

Also important is the experience ofMJali applicationadding to the already mentioned features for Leap la R
collection, analysis and dissemination of community health data. Information is collected at the household level by community workers e then sent to an online database to which local health institutions and facilities have timely and accurate access. These surveys are essential for governments to ensure efficient allocation of resources for interventions.

The gradual reduction of news

In the course of 2022, the‘Africa appeared in 953 front-page stories in six publications, or an average of 13 times a month (-3 compared to 2021). 84% of the news here is about Africa, or about events in Italy or other Western countries and specifically deals with issues related to security and migration flows (69.1%). The remaining 16.2% of news stories, set in Africa, focus more on war and terrorism (36.4%), followed by migrations and politics.

A trend seen from 2020 is getting stronger: the gradual reduction of news about Africa. Only 1,174 relevant news items were registered in the analyzed news items (22% less than in 2021), of which 74% related to migration flows and reception management. Indeed, the migration emergency is one of the most discussed topics, especially with regard to certain facts, such as the case of the Ocean Viking.

In 2022, news about war and terrorism decreased in favor of news about business travel of Italian ministers in Africa, gas supplies, COP27 and news events such as the Soumahoro case. The marginality of the focus on Africa is also confirmed in the 85 infotainment programmes analyzed on seven television networks: of the 61,320 broadcast hours in a year, 700 references to Africa were detected, fewer than last year, an average of one reference per 87 hours of programming.

It highlights how Africa is presented as a single reality, devoid of specificity and uniformly characterized by a hopeless future. In addition, after the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the presence of a story about migrations in the programs is noted, which distinguishes between real refugees fleeing an invasion and “easy” refugees, since those who seem to be considered as coming from the African continent. .

As for the cultural and artistic innovation, it is linked exclusively to the use of staged events in Italy, Europe or America. There is also a tendency to generalize the story of development processes to the continent as a whole, with a limited focus on individual countries.

Source: Corriere

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