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Focusing on the solutions, not the problems – medical tech off the grid in Africa

Dr. Seyi Oyesola is a Nigerian physician, entrepeneur, inventor, evangelist for medical care and support systems for people who live off the grid. He tells us about his medical history – he went to high school in Cleveland, then returned to the Delta state of Nigeria with his family. He did his medical degree in Nigeria, became an intern, and discovered he could barely afford to maintain his mother’s ageing car on his Nigeria salary. So he left Nigeria, joining the diaspora. He asks, “Is this going to be a permanent phenomenon?” Will we keep paying doctors in Africa so poorly that they migrate to the US or the UK?

Dr. Oyesola takes us through a quick comparison of Nigeria and the UK in health terms. The infant mortality rate is 20 times as high in Nigeria, and life expectancy is 47 years versus 78.5. It’s not just TB, HIV and malaria – African medical care fails its citizens in ordinary healthcare. “Some Africans do survive malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS. Where do they go for healthcare?”

By example, he shows us a Lagos bicycle taxi with three policemen on it. They’re not wearing helmets. When that bicycle crashes, where do they go for trauma care? He shows us the likely answer – a major Nigerian teaching hospital, which is literally held together will duct tape and will. To do complex surgeries can require days of preparation to organize the right medical equipment. Dr. Oyesola recently led a mission to Nigeria to perform a dozen open heart surgeries. This required bringing in a massive set of equipment, including oxygen… some of which exploded as inexperienced technicians tried to install it. To view the patient’s x-rays, they taped them to windows. But they performed 12 successful surgeries, correcting heart defects that people had been living with for dozens of years. He offers a maxim: “We the willing have been doing so much with so little for so long that were are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”

There’s a need for flexible solutions for African environments, solutions like ventilators that aren’t just usable for children, or emergency medicine, but are flexible enough to be used in different situations. Inspired by this flexible piece of US-built technology, Dr. Oyesola is now building a system called CompactOR – it’s a set of tools neccesary for an operating suite, powered by renewable energy. It can be supported by pedal power or from a car battery. The most recent version includes a device that generates oxygen from air. It’s portable, so it can be taken into extremely rural areas and allow complex surgery to take place.

Dr. Oyesola believes we overfocus on Africa’s problems – we need to focus more on the solutions, the people and the sacrifices they make for a better life.

His talk is followed by an interview with an amazing solution provider – William Kamkwamba, an amazing Malawian inventor, who at age 15 built a windmill in his extremely rural village based on a design he saw in a book. The windmill now powers four lights and two radios in his home, and he’s working on a larger model to help with irrigation. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more natural engineer in my life – what an incredible kid!