South African Tech Entrepreneur Solves Health Problem

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south african tech entrepreneur solves health problem

A huge setback for technology entrepreneur Neo Hutiri, who contracted tuberculosis after quitting his corporate job, turned out to be the catalyst that resulted in his global award-winning business in the health sector.

Hutiri, an electrical engineer, is the founder of Pelebox, which scooped the Royal Academy of Engineerings special medal to mark 10 years of the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation earlier this month.

His business concept was shortlisted among 12 innovations from six countries that had participated in the programme over the past decade.

He is also one of five entrepreneurs who won the Irish Tech Challenge South Africa and travelled to Dublin to attend a mentoring and acceleration programme before pitching their business concepts to international investors last week.

Pelebox is a digital platform that manages internet-enabled smart lockers, which allows patients to quickly collect their repeat chronic medication instead of queuing for hours at public clinics.

The platform works like an ATM post office, similar to cardless instant money transfers. The lockers are packed with medicine, the patient receives a one-time personal identification number in a text message, enters the PIN into the locker and the medicine is dispensed.

As simple as this collection process is now, its a concept that emerged after a long journey for Hutiri, who was diagnosed with TB in 2014 after he quit his job at ArcelorMittal.

He came up with his business idea after having to queue for hours at the Bophelong government clinic in Vanderbijlpark to collect his medication. Hutiri was frustrated because he was losing at least four hours of work time from the logistics business that he had co-founded and noticed that workers in the queue were equally frustrated.

There would be a guy and he would ask everybody, Can I just cut in front of the line, I only have one minute. So there was this theme of all of us just feeling like were losing all our time in the queue. I was a very unhappy patient, he said.

I kept on complaining to my nurse, and ultimately my nurse asked me, What solution do you guys come up with? My observation was that I was spending less than two minutes with the nurse inside but I was spending four hours outside and I thought, No, this is not efficient.

Hutiris business focused on solutions for courier companies.

I had no experience in healthcare and I feel like my entry into healthcare started as a patient, and ultimately I got curious about how I can start a business that serves people and ensures they can be served quickly and authentically, he said.

Hutiri pitched his concept of a locker to his nurse, who introduced him to the clinics manager, who put him in touch with a district health manager. He then presented the idea to the national department of health and met officials from the Johannesburg and Tshwane municipalities.

Three years later, in 2017, Hutiri launched his first pilot of the locker solution at Stanza 2 Clinic in Mamelodi.

The hypothesis at the time was we want to take people from four hours in a queue to a couple of seconds leveraging these digital lockers and I think there was a degree of being curious enough of how this could be done for the city and the national department of health to say, Yes, we will test it out, he said.

We had looked at what was happening in the online delivery market and had seen that lockers were working for parcel delivery, he said.

Hutiris lockers are locally designed and manufactured as was the software, which has been patented with the help of the Trade and Innovation Agency. The business employs 12 people but the plan is to increase this to 20.

Hutiri has set up 123 lockers in Gauteng (Mamelodi, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Hammanskraal and Daveyton), KwaZulu-Natal (Pinetown, Umlazi, Zululand and Pietermaritzburg) and North West. He has also exported the lockers to Botswana and Namibia.

We would like to get to a point where our innovations are reaching a million people. Wed love to get to a point where we have 1 000 lockers across Southern Africa, Hutiri said.

He believes the African Continental Free Trade Area will make it easier to achieve this export goal.

Id love to be able to not have so many barriers in the context of scaling into Namibia, eSwatini, Zimbabwe and Malawi. I think it will be a game changer. It would reduce the cost of doing business, it would reduce the friction points and I think it would definitely help our continent grow a lot faster and thrive where innovation can scale up, Hutiri said.

Irelands international development and diaspora minister, Sen Fleming , who met the entrepreneurs at the start-up hub Dogpatch in Dublins digital docklands precinct, said the innovations of Hutiri and Thato Schermer who built Africas first digital womens health clinic