Built in Africa: Cipher256 is solving one of Africa’s biggest problems with an app

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Built in Africa focuses on entrepreneurs, startups and technologies that hail from the continent and empower its citizens.

The miracle of birth is still a miracle, considering all that can go wrong in the nine months of pregnancy. But there have been huge leaps in medical technology,  giving healthcare workers the ability to closely monitor the progress of an unborn child and mitigate the risks of complications. However, in rural parts of Africa, where under-trained midwives are the primary monitors of unborn children, modern medical technology isn’t always available. But this is where mobile technology comes in.

In this, our ninth installment of the Built in Africa series, we feature Joshua Okello, the creator of WinSenga, a low-cost smartphone-based tool that enables midwives in low-resourced settings in Africa to effectively and accurately monitor the health of an unborn child during antenatal care and labour.

In 2012 Okello and his co-founder, Aaron Tushabe, developed an idea for Microsoft’s Imagine cup competition — a programme that asks student developers to think of new and interesting ways to use technology. So they did, and were one of two African teams feature in the world finals of the competition. The Ugandan duo went on to become the first team from Sub-Saharan Africa to receive the coveted Microsoft Imagine Cup Grant of US$50 000 to continue research and development of their project.

Move forward two years later, and the team has launched WinSenga, the flagship product of its startup Cipher256 Co, established in 2013. The startup focuses on delivering community-centric solutions.

“We believe in meeting the needs of and meeting the challenges in the community (be it local or international) through low cost, quality, affordable and accessible innovations,” says Okello.

The idea is quite simple: use pre-existing technologies to prevent the high rate of infant mortality in rural parts of the continent. According to Okello, the innovation builds on, and hopes to improve the effectiveness of, the traditional Pinard horn (foetoscope technology) prevalently used by midwives.

“With the mobile phone, data captured can be sent via text to the mother, quick referrals made to healthcare care givers and patient history is captured and analysed subsequently leading up to reduced risk of infant mortality,” says Okello.

Though a simple app, this product developed is particularly important to Africa. What the team at Cipher256 has actually done is figure out a way to modernise the Pinard horn through a smartphone. Instead of the midwife manually listening to the baby’s heart rate, they can now get all the data regarding the baby’s health on an app working together with a microphone.

The team reckons that the product is easy to use and affordable that even the most under resourced midwife will be able to provide quality antenatal care.

“Africa is the richest continent in terms of resources and opportunities. These need to be harnessed effectively and efficiently through technology,” says Okello. “Technology will play a key role in sparking growth in every sector on the continent from health to economies and democracy.”

There is a trend among Africa’s innovative youth to do good; to use technology to solve some of the continent’s most pressing problems. Okello seems to be ready to lead this charge.

“I think Africa needs innovation in three critical and complimentary areas: education, health and agriculture,” he tells me.

He argues that if there is more innovation in these three areas, it will ensure resourceful and informed communities leading healthy communities, and thriving economies.

Currently though there aren’t enough healthcare startups to help take this charge to the next level. Okello believes this is largely down to the risk involved.

“I think that it is due to the high risk, high uncertainty and long turn-over period for health technology.”

Some medical innovators, it seems, are too afraid to move forward and have become stuck in the past.

“I was once told of a medical technology company that had so far spent 20 years investing in a syringe,” he exclaims.

However, he conceded that innovation in medicine isn’t like any other tech sphere. To really be successful in this space, the entrepreneur has to either be a doctor or be willing to learn as much as one. He is right of course – it is not just about building an app that people want to use, it is about saving lives.

“I want it to save lives and improve health care services in low-resource settings across the continent,” he says. “Statistics show that communities with healthy mothers and children are more successful and more educated.”

This is a great idea and it is an important idea for the continent so Okello and his team, with an endorsement from winning Microsoft’s coveted prize, should be on their way to equipping Africa with their technology.

 “Like all other startups, we struggle getting funding and keeping afloat,” he tells me. “In addition, getting complementary or additional top-notch expertise (be it technical or business or legal) is a particularly big challenge compounded by low financial base.”

But the team seems optimistic about the prospects of its business against the backdrop of Uganda’s growing tech ecosystem. Okello says the ecosystem is entering a stage of “plateau but [is] still promising all the same”.

He reckons that there is a sense of irony in the difficulties his company is facing in terms of funding and additional support. The way he sees it, this is particularly difficult to obtain when one is just starting and you really need it, but very easy when you are established and they become supplementary rather than primary needs.

“The trends in Uganda keep changing with health and agriculture being the ‘in thing’ the past year and half. Regardless, there is still a hungry spirit for innovation especially among the youth,” he says.

There is a wave of enthusiasm around healthcare in Africa at the moment. That’s where his product will make its impact; by reducing the number of infant deaths in pregnancy or before birth due to mostly preventable and manageable risks.

To be a successful startup, Okello tells me, the entrepreneur has to understand more than just the market.

There needs to be “a deep understanding of their market and user needs which makes their business model scalable and repeatable,” he says.

This has to be accompanied by a well-chosen team behind the startup, which will ultimately determine its likelihood of success. Finally, he says, the business model has to be proven.

At the forefront of technology for good at an affordable price point for those who need it, Okello and his team are doing their best to restore dignity to Africa’s disenfranchised.