Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Fighting cancer with cell phones: Innovation to save lives in Africa

Karen Yeates (left) with colleagues Agnes Mtambo and Zahara Mahmoud, at the Pamoja Tunaweza Women's Centre in Moshi, Tanzania. Yeates is leading a project to improve cervical cancer screening in rural parts of the country. Karen Yeates (left) with colleagues Agnes Mtambo and Zahara Mahmoud, at the Pamoja Tunaweza Women's Centre in Moshi, Tanzania. Yeates is leading a project to improve cervical cancer screening in rural parts of the country.
The Kilimanjaro Cervical Screening Project
Piggy-backing anti-diarrhea kits
Piggy-backing anti-diarrhea kits
Urban waste collection
Urban waste collection
Bedside diagnosis of buruli ulcers
Bedside diagnosis of buruli ulcers
Controlling malaria
  • A Canada-backed body is sponsoring health innovators to pursue creative ideas
  • The goal is to improve access to care in developing countries
  • Grants of $100,000 have been given to 68 projects, 38 of which will be implemented in Africa
  • Successful projects will be able to apply for funding of up to $1 million

(CNN) -- Only innovation can reduce illness and poverty in Africa, according to a program that is funding creative approaches to healthcare in developing countries.

More than 50,000 women die each year of cervical cancer in Africa, according to World Health Organization estimates, as more than 80% of the cases are detected in late stages.

In countries such as Tanzania, where nearly 4,500 women die annually from the disease, the problem is exacerbated by an acute shortage of medical experts and a lack of quality screening services, especially in rural areas.

But now a group of Canadian and Tanzanian health innovators have joined forces to apply simple and safe mobile technologies to improve cervical cancer screening and thus potentially reduce mortality rates in the East African country.

The idea is to send teams of two trained non-physician healthcare workers in remote Tanzania to examine women living several hours away from health centers. The nurses, who will be equipped with cervical screening and treatment tools as well as standard smartphones, will take a photograph of the cervix with their phone and send it via SMS to a medical expert in a specialized clinic.

Trained doctors will then be able to review the image immediately and text the diagnosis back to the health worker, as well as give instructions about treatment.

"That's the beauty of it -- for early grade cancers, those will be able to be treated right in the field, right in the rural area," says Dr Karen Yeates, of Queen's University, Ontario, the principal investigator of The Kilimanjaro Cervical Screening Project.

Read: How the cell phone can improve health care

The effectiveness of the idea will be put to the test in the coming months as Yeates was named Thursday amongst the 68 innovators to receive $100,000 Canadian grants to pursue bold concepts for tackling health issues in developing countries.

In total, some $7 million has been awarded to 51 innovators in 18 low and middle-income countries, and to 17 Canadian projects, by Grand Challenges Canada, a group sponsoring breakthrough concepts to improve health in poor parts of the world. Thirty-eight of these projects will be implemented in Africa.

"This is probably the largest pipeline of innovation in global health from the developing world," says Peter Singer, chief executive of Grand Challenges Canada, which is funded by the Canadian government. "It shows that poor countries are very rich in ideas because talent is everywhere, opportunity is not, and what we are trying to do is to bring opportunity to talent to improve health."

Poor countries are very rich in ideas because talent is everywhere, opportunity is not and what we are trying to do is to bring opportunity to talent to improve health.
Peter Singer, Grand Challenges Canada, CEO

Amongst the Africa-based projects is a new trading system in Kenya where researchers will create a barcoded vaccination card that people can redeem for farm seeds and fertilizer as part of efforts to encourage vaccination of children.

Benson Wamalwa, of the University of Nairobi, says the project "would powerfully incentivize parents to seek and adhere to their children's immunization schedule even when hard pressed financially to reach a distant vaccination center. The idea is a practical solution that would significantly boost small farm productivity and incomes for poor households while safeguarding the general health of children in farming villages through up-to-date immunizations."

Read: How 'Afropreneurs' will shape Africa's future

Other programs include restoring native freshwater prawns in Senegal to eat the populations of snails that are responsible for the spreading of the parasitic disease schistosomiasis; paying youth in Uganda to collect and sort garbage and deliver it to a plant for conversion to fertilizer and biogas in order to improve sanitation; and anti-diarrhea kits for children hitching a ride on Coca-Cola's distribution chain to improve the availability of life-saving drugs.

Grand Challenges Canada says it will repeat its Stars in Global Health program every six months, funding hundreds of projects over the coming years. It also plans to work with partners to provide scale-up funding of up to $1 million to those ideas that are proved to be successful so that they can have a bigger impact in a more sustainable way.

Singer says that many of the traditional approaches when it comes to aid have proved to be inadequate. Instead, he argues, fostering innovation and investing in the ideas of the people can be an effective exit strategy from poverty.

"There are only two ways for a country to develop, there's only two sources of wealth in the world," he says. "Either you mine the ground for resources and minerals, if you do that in a non-corrupt manner, or you mine the brains of your citizens for their bold ideas and help them to create social enterprises, to create businesses that can improve the local conditions in a broader scale."

He adds: "I do think that these innovators can help the problems of their community -- in fact, they are the only thing that can."

Part of complete coverage on
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
Photojournalist Daniella Zalcman asked Uganda's religious leaders their views on homosexuality. Their answers might surprise you.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1726 GMT (0126 HKT)
Nazis, bomb raids, and a mysterious man with a mustache. The search for the spinosaurus reads like a spy novel.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Can a rat be a hero? It can if it saves lives. Meet the giant rats that sniff out landmines and TB
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
In Africa, royalty is an endangered species. Meet the man on a mission to photograph the last remaining kings and queens.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1110 GMT (1910 HKT)
Can state-of-the art schools in rural Africa rescue the environment? One charity is betting on it.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
To save the rhinos, one charity is moving them out of South Africa, where poaching is at an all time high.
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1542 GMT (2342 HKT)
mediterranean monk seal
Many of Africa's animals are facing extinction. Is it too late for them? Our interactive looks at the many challenges to survival.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
No one knows what causes "fairy circles" in Namibia's desert. A new study, however, may have solved the mystery.
April 3, 2014 -- Updated 1054 GMT (1854 HKT)
A picture shows the Rwenzori mountain range on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on March 8, 2014. At 5,109 metres (16,763 feet), Mount Stanley's jagged peak is the third highest mountain in Africa, topped only by Mount Kenya and Tanzania's iconic Kilimanjaro.
The 'African Alps' are melting, and it may be too late. Now may be your last chance to see the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 0934 GMT (1734 HKT)
The Hadza are one of the oldest people on Earth. Today, they battle for land, and continued survival.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1438 GMT (2238 HKT)
One company thinks so. They're investing in insect farms in Ghana and Kenya. Could bugs build an industry and curb malnutrition?
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1020 GMT (1820 HKT)
Morocco is famous for its historic cities and rugged landscape. But it's becoming known as a surfer's paradise.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 1027 GMT (1827 HKT)
A photographer took to an ultra-light aircraft to capture Botswana's savannah from above. The results are amazing.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 0437 GMT (1237 HKT)
Vintage helicopters, ziplines, private flying safaris offer new, spectacular views of wildlife and rugged terrain.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
Makoko Floating School
A new wave of African architects are creating remarkable buildings in the continent, and beyond.
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 1415 GMT (2215 HKT)
A huge spiral in the Sahara had Google Earth users baffled by what it could be. So what exactly is it?
Each week Inside Africa highlights the true diversity of the continent as seen through the mediums of art, music, travel and literature.