Invention of Ugandan students: no-needle, fast malaria test wins Africa Prize

Five years ago, Club Africa reported about Ugandan student Brian Gitta and his ‘pain-free’ Matibabu malaria test. At that time, the test he invented with his friends was called ‘promising’. Today, the invention of the students has been recognized internationally. Their innovation has won the prestigious Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. One of the judges of the Africa Prize: “Matibabu is a game changer.” 

Matibabu (the word means ‘medical centre’ in Swahili) can help beat malaria in Africa. Of the 400,000 deaths globally due to malaria, 90% are in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly in children below five. The invention is a low-cost, reusable and swift bloodless malaria testing device. Ugandan students got the idea for the invention after they had missed school several times due to falling ill with malaria. The device works simple: it clips onto a patient’s finger, requiring no specialist expertise to operate. The device scans the finger and can detect malaria in blood without the help of any needle; the results are available within one minute on a mobile phone that is linked to the device. 

Light-scattering technology 

In the Club Africa storyJoshua Kavuma, a team member of Gitta, explained that the technology is based on the knowledge that infected red blood cells have a different physical, chemical and biomedical structure from a normal red blood cell. The students use light-scattering technology to determine the scatter patterns of both normal and infected cells. 

All currently available tests for malaria require blood samples which are invasive, expensive and time-consuming. The new Matibabu testing device is expected to lower the threshold for malaria testing. As Brian, now a software technician, explained: “Vaccinating doesn’t go well with people who fear needles. Queues at the doctor are long while the blood tests hurt,” he said. 

A big step up 

In 2013, Brian Gitta and his friends won their first prize, the Imagine Cup, a Microsoft-sponsored event of technology students around the world. This year’s prize is big step up. As the youngest winner of the Africa Prize ever, Gitta was awarded the sum of £25,000. In his response to questions, Gitta answered the recognition will help his team manage production better and open up much-needed partnership opportunities. The prize money will be spent well, Gitta promised. We can better manage production in order to scale clinical trials and prove ourselves to regulators.” 

In the past years, the team have worked on developing the device further, to make it the alternative, fast operating and reliable test method for individuals, health centres and diagnostic suppliers on the continentThe team’s ultimate dream is to have the device available on the streets of Uganda to enable people to conduct swift malaria tests. 

Testing in hospital 

The Matibabu device is not ready for that. First, it is undergoing testing in partnership with a national hospital in Uganda. Meanwhile, suppliers are being selected for the sensitive magnetic and laser components required to scale up production.  

According to VenturesAfricaGitta and his team have been approached by international researchers offering support. They are currently compiling their ground-breaking findings into an academic paper that is to be published this year. For Gitta and his team, the future looks bright. Africa Prize judge Rebecca Enonchong, who presented Brian Gitta with the Africa Prize winner's medalsaid: “Matibabu is a game changer.” 

The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation is Africa’s biggest prize dedicated to innovation in engineering. The Prize encourages and promotes talented sub-Saharan African engineers from all disciplines to develop innovations that address crucial problems in their communities in a new and appropriate way. The Prize provides a unique package of support, including funding, business training, mentoring and access to the network of high profile, experienced engineers and experts of the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK. 

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