Over recent years there has been an influx of high-tech innovations geared toward poverty reduction in a variety of ways. It is important to remember that our concept of the digital age is unreachable for many in the Global South and not all innovations require the use of ‘modern technology’. While it is making strides in a variety of sectors, like increasing access to health care through mobile clinics or modernizing agriculture techniques with smartphones, the fact is that these highly technological options aren’t readily available to the general population in the Global South, particularly in rural areas. What is often available? Spare parts and junk metals galvanized from a range of sources, and imagination. One doctor in Nigeria has harnessed these materials to build a hospital and is working to spread his concept throughout the continent.
Dr. Oluyombo Awajobi has gained worldwide notoriety for developing medical devices from scrap parts and discarded corn cobs to provide health services to the rural community of Eruwa in northeast Nigeria, roughly 150 kilometers from Lagos. This hospital, which has 52 beds and a surgical unit, is a boon to the area; servicing upwards of 200,000 people from Eruwa and neighboring communities who would otherwise have to make the six hour trek to Lagos for care. The area has an unreliable power grid, and access to electricity is intermittent at best. This is suboptimal when it comes to running a hospital as patient care can be disrupted and, in some cases, endangered. Additionally, fuel for external generators, which would provide electricity when the power grid fails, is expensive. This hospital relies on largely manual devices, thereby reducing costs and the dependency on electricity.
Dr. Awajobi has fashioned, among other things, a blood centrifuge with parts from an old bicycle. The machine is manually pedalled with the hands to spin blood samples. It generates a speed comparable to the propeller of a small air plane and successfully separates plasma from red blood cells. The suction pump used in his operating room is made from a bike tire and is also operated by pedalling. The hospital’s boiler is an innovation that is useful not only for the hospital. It is an old propane tank, which uses corn cobs discarded by nearby farmers to run. The steam produced is utilized by equipment in the hospital, including the autoclave, which sterilizes medical tools and equipment.
Dr. Awajobi has been running this hospital for the last 27 years and is dedicated to providing healthcare by Africans, for Africans. He contends that his approach is centered on providing social services through innovation, and community participation is key. Having encountered some resistance when trying to share his ideas with other health centers, or with local people hesitant to trust his devices, he has found that sharing his knowledge, and bringing them into the hospital to observe, learn, and participate has made the public more amenable to his methods. He employs local community members and allows families to come in and act as bedside nurses alongside professionals. Patients pay what they can afford and each month, after reviewing financial reports, all employees collaborate and decide upon an appropriate salary for the month, which is the same for all employees. His work has gained international notoriety, and he refuses to patent his innovations. Rather, he allows them to be published in journals and other publicly available materials so whoever wants to emulate his efforts may do so. He began training people on how to develop and use his inventions in 2006. Projects such as this illustrate that access to care is not always out of reach, nor is it always dependent on donor dollars or earmarked technology. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.
Read an interview between Dr. Awojobi and the World Health Organization here.
Dr. Awojobi is also a member of a number of initiatives dedicated to increasing access to healthcare, particularly surgical health care, to people in developing countries. Click here for an example of his efforts.