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Innovators mobilise to assist developing countries combat covid-19

By Fredrick Obura | April 28th 2020

The novel, affordable ways to acquire medical oxygen, ventilators, masks and other critically needed Covid-19 supplies and services are among 20 Grand Challenges Canada innovations mobilising to assist developing countries through the global pandemic.

In the past decade, the innovations received GCC support in several forms, including over $16 million provided by the Government of Canada, based on the criteria of “bold ideas with big impact” in global health.  

The projects now offer critical resources, ideas and solutions for low-resource countries struggling to meet an acute need for affordable, locally sourced products and services.

“To overcome the unprecedented global health challenges presented by Covid-19, the world needs innovation and ingenuity. Over the past 10 years, Canada’s funding for Grand Challenges Canada has helped hundreds of innovative ideas become a reality. Today, some of those very ideas are saving lives by helping people prevent and respond to the disease and other health challenges in developing countries,” said Karina Gould, Canada’s Minister of International Development.

“Innovation in global health means provisioning low-resource areas with needed goods and services that are better, faster and cheaper.  Such solutions take time to develop, scale-up, and evaluate as they transition to scale,” added GCC co-CEO, Dr Karlee Silver.

“With Canadian Government funding, we have supported a portfolio of solutions over the past 10 years that are particularly relevant to the developing world’s COVID-19 response. It is during times like these that the value of an investment in innovation becomes most obvious.”

“Grand Challenges Canada is lending expertise and other support to the innovators as they focus on the pandemic, and several will receive additional funding as needed to help accelerate their response to COVID-19.  Many others among GCC's 228 active innovation projects are working to mitigate the fallout of COVID-19 on reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health services disrupted by pandemic control measures,” says Dr Silver.

“We have been guided by local governments’ needs, with locally supplied medical oxygen topping the list — a resource in tragically short supply and high demand throughout much of the developing world.”

The innovators leading these 20 solutions are based in 11 countries including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Brazil, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Australia, Canada and the United States and operate in low-resource areas throughout Africa and beyond, from the Amazon to the Himalayas.

One of the projects is Kenya’s Hewa Tele which delivers life-saving medical oxygen to health facilities in the country that have little or no access to it otherwise, operating production plants in partnership with governments and hospitals.   

Currently serving a population of 15 million with GCC support, Hewa Tele will now provide medical-grade oxygen to Nairobi’s Covid-19 isolation hospital, with a set of cylinders dedicated solely to that facility, and will gear up to meet the oxygen needs of a growing number of patients.

Its expansion plans include hiring additional staff to facilitate 24-hour coverage, leasing more distribution vehicles, adding new oxygen cylinders to its inventory, and training health care staff to administer oxygen safely.

GCC also supported the University of Alberta researchers and their Global Health Uganda partners developed an easy-to-use “SPO2” solar-powered system that turns ambient air into medical-grade oxygen with battery banks enabling uninterrupted service through the night and on cloudy days.  

SPO2 systems include how-to “roadmaps” for local procurement, training, and maintenance of solar oxygen concentrators helpful to COVID-19 responses in remote, off-grid facilities or those without a reliable electricity supply.  
Oxygen therapy systems are currently installed in 10 African hospitals (8 in Uganda; 2 in DR Congo), and the team is exploring partnerships to expand their reach to meet demand.

In Tanzania, the Ubongo Learning locally produces culturally-relevant, multi-lingual, multi-media “edutainment” and other learning resources for young children and caregivers, Kenya and Uganda.

TV and radio shows deliver engaging stories, animations and songs that teach children early numeracy, language and literacy, motor development, socio-emotional learning and good health wellbeing, with complementary content and guidance for parents and caregivers to support home learning.  

In light of Covid-19 related school closures across Africa, Ubongo is freely offering its library of TV and radio content, as well as public service announcements and educational videos to support health and hygiene.

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