Israeli developers partner with African startup entrepreneurs

Article Summary
Dozens of Israeli companies took part in the Third World Development Competition held in Israel, while focus was directed mainly on an African startup, recruiting developers in Israel.

Among the many participants and startup founders who crowded the Google campus in Tel Aviv the week of Nov. 17, two guests stood out in the crowd. The event — a "hackathon" focused on the development of technologies for the Third World — was especially close to their hearts. At the event, groups of developers had to develop and present, within a specified period of time, a software product that directly dealt with the problems of Africa and the developing countries. However, the two did not attend as competitors but rather as proven developers who had already done it, having set up their own company in Ghana, in the heart of West Africa.

Gregory Rockson and Emmanuel Foucault, his partner, attended the event, which was jointly organized by the global CleanWeb movement, the TerraLabs technology incubator and IsraelDev, to promote mPharma — a unique medical venture designed to bring progress to Africa. “Many seek to change Africa, but Africa is transforming itself. This is the only way it can happen,” Rockson said, who, after being awarded a scholarship from Princeton University, chose to return to his native country with the aim of solving the numerous problems the African continent was coping with.

Rockson and Foucault, childhood friends who have partnered in the mPharma venture, were accompanied in the event by two American entrepreneurs, who were so delighted with their vision that they had joined in with Rockson and Foucault when they first learned about the venture back in Ghana.

The mobile device at the service of medicine

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Africa is an exciting, yet tricky market, where almost everyone has a mobile device, but a substantial part of the population has no reliable access to medical services, electricity and telephony infrastructure or water supply. What’s more, most hospitals have no access to advanced computing services. In 1999, a shipment of defective drugs caused the death of hundreds of babies, and this went on over a number of months. However, in the absence of coordination between the hospitals, and between the patients and physicians themselves, it took quite some time until the problem was identified. “As I see it, it is an illustrative case, typical of the problems generally plaguing Africa,” Rockson noted. “True, we do receive Western aid, and there is good will, but since we lack adequate infrastructures, nobody made a connection between all those cases.”

It is precisely this problem that mPharma is out to solve — offering a mobile app designed for simple phones, which allows patients and physicians to stay in touch after the treatment and enables physicians to provide their patients with prescriptions in the form of text messages, without actually writing them on paper. The patients may then receive the drugs they need, as indicated by the text message prescription, and subsequently notify their physician of the outcome. Physicians may also scan existing paper prescriptions with the mobile camera and send them by phone.

“The question we asked ourselves was how to leverage the mobile revolution in Africa to help with the distribution of pharmaceuticals and assistance. And it turns out that in Africa, it was easier to launch it [the solution we developed]. Physicians are rather skeptical, as a rule, about new technologies. In Africa, on the other hand, they are generally open to novel ideas.

The first country to adopt the new technology is Zambia, where mobile clinics — each somewhat bigger than an average truck — go from village to village and provide medical care for thousands of patients. Using mPharma, physicians will be able to stay in touch with their patients even after moving to the next village.

According to Rockson, the biggest problem is the local bureaucracy. “I did not expect the chaos I encountered everywhere. Each pharmacist has his own way of doing things, and each hospital has its own procedures. There is no orderly system and no logic. Every country and each business needs individual adaptation.”

Rockson plans to set up a development center in Israel and recruit workers locally for mPharma. “Israel is favorably regarded in Africa. And Israel is way ahead on all the technologies we need — solar energy, agriculture, infrastructures, communications. Israel is the startup country. Africa is the startup continent.”

Several hundred participants

The cellular is currently generating a revolution in Africa. Thus, farmers can remotely check grain prices and decide what to plant next. And traders, faced with a situation where there are virtually no bank branches and bandits are attacking passersby on an almost daily basis, use the cellular to transfer funds to each other through text messages.

It is the significant challenge of developing technologies for Africa and the rest of the developing world that attracted hundreds of Israeli developers, engineers and entrepreneurs to take part in the hackathon. One of the entrepreneurs behind the project is Barak Goldstein, a partner in the investment fund and technology incubator Terra Ventures, which manages $50 million for investment in companies engaged in development for Third World countries.

“I have a warm spot in my heart for Africa,” Goldstein said. “In most cases, venture capital funds invest only in developed markets, as that’s where they believe the money is. However, there is a great potential in Africa. I am interested in investing in enterprises that have an impact — not just economically, but rather on our life and environment.” 

Goldstein noted that he was surprised by the response. “I expected, at best, some several dozen people to show up for the event, but as it turned out, hundreds registered for participation. They all teamed up in groups before the event, discussed problems that could be solved, thought how to solve them and came up with all sorts of ideas. A solid community has thus come into being here.”

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Found in: technology, mobilization, medical logistics, israeli technology industries, africa
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