Leveling the playing field for women in science and technology innovation in Africa

16 December 2021.
By Greg Perry (via IFPMA Global Health Matters Blog)

Innovation is crucial to identifying solutions to Africa’s healthcare needs. However, without the participation of women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), Africa and the world is bound to miss their invaluable perspectives and critical contributions.

Women account for 30 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s researchers and innovators and face limited access to funding and skills gaps that are key to business enterprises’ formation, scale-up, and sustainability.

At this year’s Galien Forum Africa, I was honored to welcome the three women selected to participate in our Women Innovators Incubator Program, as part of a broader discussion on the status of women in STEM and their critical role in Africa’s development.

Angella Kyomugisha, is a 29-year-old Ugandan, who created Kaaro Health a startup that uses simple mobile technologies to bring affordable, high-quality healthcare to every village in Africa. They deploy telehealth-enabled container clinics in villages that otherwise have no clinic within a 25-kilometer radius.

Nuriat Nambogo, is a 35-year-old Ugandan who developed  MobiCare, a smartphone mobile based application that helps to link patients to health workers licensed to practice and enables convenient appointment scheduling.

Marie Chantal Umunyana, is a 26-year-old medical student from Rwanda. She is the founder of Umubyeyi, a digital health platform that provides evidence-based information on maternal & child wellbeing and parenting. It is a digital health initiative for youth, which aims to make health information accessible to young couples, pregnant women, and young mothers.

Throughout the session, I was impressed by the determination of Angella, Marie Chantal and Nuriat, three outstanding women who managed to overcome often well engrained cultural beliefs about the role of women in society and shared with us their motivation to venture into the fields of science and technology and the challenges they faced. I am happy they will now receive the guidance they are looking for in terms of scaling up their innovation.

Empowering women-led innovation

It is well known that fewer women embark in careers in STEM and that there are significant imbalances between men and women in accessing funding, professional networks, training and skills development, and overall participation in competitive environments.

These are all key ingredients for successful innovation and successful business. And this is the support we wanted to bring. The Women Innovators Incubator stemmed out of the Africa Young Innovators for Health Awardlaunched at the same Galien Forum a year ago. The Award is an investment in the human capital of Africa’s promising young innovators and entrepreneurs. The Awards Programme was very successful in attracting more than 300 quality submissions from more than 30 African countries – all proposing innovative solutions in the healthcare sector.

However, only 21 percent of these submissions were from women. The low numbers of female applicants was revealing of the structural gender inequalities in the field of scientific and technological innovation from the get-go.

STEM are catalytic for the improvement of health outcomes in Africa. They are essential drivers for innovation, proposing new approaches and solutions to tackle Africa’s existing and emerging health challenges. To ensure inclusive growth and wellbeing for all, girls and women must be provided with equal opportunities to participate in and benefit from STEM.

Through the Women Innovators Incubator, we at IFPMA have partnered with Speak Up Africa to  support women entrepreneurs develop their business ideas and advance promising healthcare solutions on the continent.

We want to contribute to leveling the playing field and giving women innovators a better chance to bring their projects closer to fruition – from concept to implementation and scale.

Angella, Nurian and Marie Chantal, as selected participants, will benefit from financial support, mentorship, media training, expert advice on IP protection, and access to the rich network of supporters of the Africa Young Innovators for Health Award.

Each of these three stories allowed us to delve into the wider topic of gender disparities in the innovation space and the role women can play and do play in innovation, which may sometimes not be recognized. Initiatives like the Women Innovators Incubator is a platform to recognize these women, and realize the potential of their innovations.

I hope their stories will inspire more young women to venture into the field of health, science, and technology in order to help their communities and bring their innovative ideas to life. The Galien Forum Africa has been working to strengthen research and sustainable development by sharing experiences in the face of major public health issues, and we should keep the momentum going.