Rwandan technology students share experience of winning Africa Grand Challenge

[From left] Kayondo, Kabagamba, Rwema and Gasana waiting for the winner to be announced. (Courtesy photos)

At the 2017 Africa Grand Challenge, Rwanda was represented by four technology students from Carnegie Mellon University; Aline Umubyeyi Gasana, Rene Kabagamba, Aimable Rwema and Batanda Kayondo.

They won the challenge that came with a cash prize of USD3, 000 (about Rwf2.4m) after their impressive Mobile Hospital proposal.

Aline Umubyeyi Gasana shared her experience in an interview with The New Times;

Tell us about your project.

The challenge was to address how emerging digital technology can enable significant improvement in health care services across cities in Sub Saharan Africa in the next three to five years taking into consideration the rapid growth of urban areas in Africa.

How many were you?

We were 32 contestants, grouped in 8 teams of 4 students, coming from 7 countries: Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria and Burkina Faso. However, the contestants included nationals from Gabon and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Which issues will you address?

Our product proposal is a mobile hospital. According to a study carried out by the Belgian Red Cross, 40 per cent of medical cases can be treated by emergency first aid, with no need to go to hospitals. Our solution is to educate people in emergency and first aid treatment.  

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Gasana shakes a judge’s hand after winning the competition.

What are the features of your product and what makes it new to society?

The product is accessible through a website, a mobile application and through USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) short codes. The product offers ease of access to medical attention. 

How exactly does the African Grand Challenge help?

It is described as “In Africa, for Africans and addressing Africa’s problems.” The objectives of the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) African Grand Challenge are to innovate for Africa, to collaborate and learn together, and to foster multi-level partnerships for a sustainable future. It seeks to bring together students who are interested in the application of science and technology research to critical problems in Africa.   

How were participants selected?

The screening team was appointed by the chairman of the local organising committee of the AGC with members and terms of reference. As a result, eight teams of students (as cited above) were selected as participants in the second AGC. Upon receipt of official communication from offices of Vice Chancellors (or their representatives) introducing their respective teams, AGC’s organising committee kept in touch with nominees, sent them itineraries and finally tickets and organised airport pick up information.

What made you outstanding?

The fact that we backed our business proposition with actual numbers. One of the judges mentioned how happy she was to see that we had done some research which added value to our pitch, a culture mostly developed by our time at Carnegie Mellon University. We also benefited from what is currently going on in Rwanda, where health workers are already providing basic health care in rural areas which inspired our business proposition. 

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Will this product help Rwandans?

The product we pitched was developed with our country in mind. We believe that once it is implemented, as we are currently looking forward to, it will above everything benefit the people of Rwanda. 

How did you come up with this idea?

We brainstormed on different ideas and then identified a specific need which we felt we should address. From there, we thought of a product that can best solve the situation at hand.

What did you learn during this time?

“Co-opetition”! Upon arrival we were surprised to learn that we were not coming for a competition but a co-opetition described as a blend of cooperation and competition. The main task throughout the “co-opetition” day was to share experiences and learn to work together in a Pan-African spirit. 

What motivated you to apply for the challenge?

The theme of the challenge was shared with us ahead of time which was: “The Impact of Digital Technologies on Healthcare Systems: How digital sensors, big data and analytics, robotics or mobile/smart cell phones can be integrated into solutions that will significantly increase the capability to provide low cost, reliable and effective transportation services in support of healthcare in Africa.”  The mentioned area of interest for all of us students is information technology. This, in addition to the noble cause stated in the above theme led us to want to apply and attend this edition of the African Grand Challenge.  

What do you hope for after this?

There is a promising opportunity to get partners and investors after refining our project and building a prototype which we look forward to do.