How technology can help combat Africa’s brain-drain

John Afolayan
By John Afolayan

Co-Founder of Medics2You

Posted on Tuesday, 4 February 2020 14:53

Doctors perform surgery for a patient at an obstetric fistula repair centre in Maiduguri, Nigeria July 31, 2018. Picture taken July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

For the first time, Africa-focused startup funding has crossed the $1 billion mark. Last year, African startups received a total of $1.3 billion, with over half of the total funnelled into fintech businesses. From banking to health care provision, startups are proving that technology can provide the solutions to the most challenging of problems.

Brain drain has long been identified as one such issue.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has labelled it a “bane to Africa’s potential”, and during a visit to South Africa in 2018, former US President Barack Obama chose to tackle the subject. Obama advised young Africans to drive change at home, and encouraged governments to create platforms for success.

It should be no surprise that Obama used the weight of his words to address brain drain, and since 2018 the situation has not improved. The African Union estimates that about 70,000 skilled professionals leave each year, dramatically impacting public service delivery, especially in the health sector.

For many African countries, there are more doctors and health practitioners in the diaspora than at home. Yet in the age of mobile proliferation, technology is providing the capability to reverse engineer the impact of brain drain.

It is clear that countries around the world have benefited greatly from the knowledge and expertise of many Africans who have migrated for economic opportunities. Nigeria is the primary case study, with the United Kingdom benefitting to the tune of 6,770 Nigerian nationals working in the National Health Service (NHS).

The number of health professionals that are second or third generation migrants from Nigeria working in the NHS is higher still.

And it is not just the UK that recruits Nigeria’s medics.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, the US and many other countries also scout for doctors willing to make the move. According to the health minister, there is one doctor per 5,000 people in Nigeria, compared with the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of one per 600 people. The issue is of course not confined to Nigeria, with the WHO suggesting that 57 % of Africans have poor or no access to quality care.

Brain drain undoubtedly has a negative impact on the countries that individuals leave behind, however those that choose to make the move should not be criticised for their decision. Instead, the focus should be on how to address the impact of brain drain and improve the delivery of vital services such as healthcare.

It is here that technology is playing a central role in providing a solution.

Tech startups like the one I have co-founded, Medics2You, have been designed to leapfrog the existing ecosystem by harnessing the potential provided by the proliferation of mobile technology and artificial intelligence.

The platform works by connecting patients with a roster of over 18,000 doctors – many from the Nigerian diaspora in the UK – who are available for face-to-face video consultations working to international guidelines, and able to prescribe medication delivered to a patient’s door or workplace by local partners.

A study of the sub-Saharan African mobile economy has estimated that there will be over 600 million unique mobile subscriptions by 2025. Nigeria is unsurprisingly one of the fastest growing markets and is already home to the highest number of smartphone users in Africa. A generation of digital natives expect to use their mobile devices to circumvent the limitations of existing infrastructure.

Skills, expertise, and knowledge are valuable commodities.

As Obama pointed out, governments and institutions have a responsibility to create an environment that encourages individuals to stay, as opposed to seeking opportunity elsewhere.

However, until this tipping point is reached, the deployment of technology to harness the skills of the diaspora in vital sectors such as healthcare is an effective solution, allowing individuals to access the care that they need through the power of their smartphone.

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