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Powering Africa’s digital health through artificial intelligence driven innovation

Monday, October 9, 2023

The investment will be awarded through a call for applications issued by Grand Challenges Africa.

Dakar, Senegal — Digital technologies are reshaping the way we approach healthcare, making services more accessible, efficient, and patient-centric (World Health Organization, 2021). However, as the world stands at the cusp of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution, it is imperative to ensure that the benefits of these innovations reach all corners of the globe, especially in Africa and for LMICs. 

In response, today at the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting (GCAM) 2023, the Science for Africa Foundation (SFA Foundation) announced $2.4 million in funding to catalyse the equitable use of AI to improve the health and lives of Africans. The call for applications is being announced with funding support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and the SFA Foundation’s Grand Challenges Africa (GC Africa) initiative. GC Africa awards bold projects through seed and scale-up grants that provide the continent’s most impressive solutions. 

The investment will be awarded through a call for applications issued by Grand Challenges Africa, as part of a partnership of five Grand Challenges national programmes - Grand Challenges Ethiopia, Grand Challenges Senegal, Grand Challenges South Africa, Grand Challenges Brazil and Grand Challenges India. These initiatives are rooted in the belief that AI driven solutions must be locally driven, owned, and accountable to address the unique needs of the communities they serve. The funding will be awarded to researchers, implementers, governments, and technical partners in Africa. 

"AI has the potential to revolutionise global and digital health in Africa. By investing in AI-led innovations, SFA Foundation is empowering Africa’s researchers and innovators to lead the way in addressing the healthcare challenges that have long affected our communities. This initiative marks a pivotal moment in African-led digital innovations, allowing us to harness AI's transformative power for the benefit of all Africans and beyond," said Prof Tom Kariuki, Chief Executive Officer, Science for Africa Foundation. 

The global digital health landscape 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) digital health technologies are rapidly transforming healthcare delivery across the world. For example: electronic health records have streamlined the management of patient information ensuring that healthcare providers have access to vital data at their fingertips; telemedicine and telehealth have bridged geographical barriers enabling remote healthcare consultations; and Mobile Health (mHealth) apps have empowered individuals to monitor their health. 

​​“The future of healthcare is digital – and AI will be an increasingly important tool to advance that future,” said Rebecca Distler, Strategist for AI, Data, and Digital Health at the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation. “To realise the potential of AI to improve health and well-being, particularly across the African continent, we need to equip and support local innovators – who understand how best to transform and uplift their communities – in leveraging new approaches like large language models. We’re thrilled to partner with SFA Foundation to architect that African-led vision.”​ 

AI's role in African-led innovation 

Africa is a continent of immense potential, but it also faces unique healthcare challenges that include a high global disease burden of 25 % (WHO). By focusing on AI-led innovations, this partnership aims to ensure responsible use of AI encompassing safe, equitable, transparent, reliable, and beneficial processes are adhered to with a high level of accountability.  Emphasis is on the importance of locally driven and owned AI solutions, which are more sustainable and relevant to the needs of the people they intend to serve and are more likely to be accepted and used by local communities. 

"The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is committed to supporting AI-led innovations in global health. We believe that by investing in AI-driven solutions, we can accelerate progress towards achieving universal healthcare and improving the lives of women, children, and vulnerable communities. The focus on Africa is essential because it is a region where innovative approaches can have a profound and lasting impact," said Kedest Tesfagiorgis, deputy director, Global Partnerships and Grand Challenges at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

The challenge ahead 

In line with the Grand Challenges AI partnership, the partners are issuing a call for applications inviting innovators and researchers to propose ground-breaking projects that leverage large language models to advance global and digital health. We encourage applicants to select the AI tools that best suit their specific use cases and contexts, ensuring maximum impact. By funding AI research and innovation in global and digital health, we aspire to: 

  • Improve the accessibility and quality of healthcare services. 

  • Empower individuals to take control of their health and well-being. 

  • Foster African-led research and innovation in global and digital health. 

  • Address unique healthcare challenges faced by African communities. 

The call for applications aims to advance global public health, with a focus on use cases in clinical decision support, population health ​​​and policymaking, support for frontline health workers, health communications and patient journeys, and health systems strengthening.  

Applicants from Ethiopia, South Africa, and Senegal need to apply through their respective GC country initiatives while those from other African countries are invited to submit their applications to GC Africa.  

The GC Africa specific call for applications can be accessed here. 

About the Science for Africa Foundation (SFA Foundation)  

The SFA Foundation is a pan-African, non-profit and public charity organisation that supports, strengthens, and promotes science and innovation in Africa. The SFA Foundation serves the African research ecosystem by funding excellent ideas in research and innovation; enabling interdisciplinary collaborations and building and reinforcing environments that are conducive for scientists to thrive and produce quality research that generates new, locally relevant knowledge.  

About the Grand Challenges family 

The Grand Challenges family of initiatives fosters innovation to solve key health and development problems. See below for Grand Challenges grant opportunities with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as sole or contributing funder. This request for proposals is being launched by six Grand Challenges partners: Grand Challenges Africa, GC Ethiopia, Senegal, and South Africa, India and Brazil. The Science for Africa Foundation is taking part in the call through its Grand Challenges Africa initiative, which supports big, bold impactful innovative ideas that have a potential for impact, scale, and sustainability. GC Africa awards bold projects through seed and scale-up grants that provide the continent’s most impressive solutions.  

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