Zimbabwe needs to sustain and enhance an innovation spirit and entrepreneurial mindset among its university researchers to help fight Covid-19 and spur its socio-economic recovery once lockdown restrictions begin to ease. The Harare Institute of Technology’s (HIT) proactive approach is paying off with its wealth of trained engineering talent developing a mobile phone application that allow users to report suspected Covid-19 cases and deaths. In this report, Sifelani Tsiko (ST), our Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor speaks to HIT Vice Chancellor Engineer Quinton Kanhukamwe (QK), on this new software.
ST: What is the mobile phone application called? What motivated you to develop this new app?
QK: Following our presentation on the university’s Covid-19 pandemic interventions to His Excellency, the President and our Chancellor, Cde Emmerson Mnangagwa on 8 April, 2020, the Harare Institute of Technology (HIT) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) developed another Covid-19 intervention, in the form of a national Covid-19 Alert Reporting Management System (CAMS) to manage the recording of data. The major motivation of developing the system was for the nation to have a tool at its disposal that enables the National Covid-19 Taskforce to make informed decisions in real-time, as well as contributing to the general public’s safety by improving the reporting of Covid-19 cases. We also wanted patients to get assurance that help is on its way when they report cases. We were also motivated to provide a platform of comparing Zimbabwe’s performance against the world in real-time.
ST: How does this app operate? What are the main requirements for it to function effectively?
QK: This latest intervention by HIT, the Covid-19 Alert Reporting Management System (CAMS) is a real-time and cloud-based alert management system that enables users to send alerts through the evaluation of Covid-19 symptoms using a smartphone. It also allows the users to report any death from their communities in addition to assisting healthcare personnel to view the geographical distribution of the reported cases and community deaths due to coronavirus infection or other sicknesses.
The application sends two SMS messages to the suspected patient’s next of kin and the nearest Covid-19 Control/Call Centre. The Control Centre calls the patient and the next of kin to ascertain the report. Once confirmed, the Control Centre communicates with the Ministry of Health and Child Care categorise the report as pending, resolved, discarded or contacted.
In terms of case management, the system allows the management of suspected cases on the public website covid19zw.com in order to track the patient’s performance. The website is accessed once the user selects view website on the main menu of the Android application. Once a patient has been tested and results are out, the Covid-19 Control Centre creates a heatmap showing potential areas of infection. The heatmap gives the general public an understanding of how the virus is spreading.
For instance, once the results are tested positive, all areas once visited by the patient are mapped-red. Orange denotes that a report has been generated, but the test results are still unavailable. Green reflects that a report has been generated, but tested negative, while red indicates that a report was generated and the test results were positive. Blue circles illustrates the provincial cities of the respective provinces.
Covid-19 Alert Reporting Management System (CAMS) also generates important information such as reported cases per district, confirmed positive cases per district, total recovered patients per district, total deaths per district, priority-based Automated Testing System (PbATS), quarantined population census, quarantine areas (Hospitals), Healthcare Services-Priority (HcSP).
ST: How has the President and the Government reacted to your latest innovations? Do you think you are getting adequate support from the Government?
QK: You recall that the President has instructed higher education institutions to lead in the modernisation and industrialisation of our economy. In particular, the Harare Institute of Technology with its mandate of technology development, incubation, transfer and commercialisation was also charged with leading the advancement of Zimbabwe into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
We are also mindful of the Education 5.0 doctrine, which essentially reinforces what we have been doing since the transformation of HIT into a University in 2005. The clarity of vision regards how science, technology, engineering and innovation are integral to the modernisation and industrialisation of our country and the release of funding for the construction of innovation hubs in a number of universities including ours as well as availing research funding for a number of our innovations is ample testimony to the unequivocal support by the President to have our institutions playing a major role in the national economy.
It is imperative to note though that all our programmes are in Science, Engineering and Technology are of an equipment and consumables-intensive nature, and that the ecosystem of innovation requires that more funding be availed to energise more innovation outputs.
The decisive phase we have entered into requires sustained and secure funding to enable us to deliver on the mandate. Innovation by its very nature is very disruptive and this calls us draw up critical lessons from global experiences.
ST: Can you tell us how this new app is going to benefit ordinary Zimbabweans? Is it going to be easily accessible and helpful to the poor?
QK: This app presents great benefits and opportunities to ordinary Zimbabweans. Firstly, it eliminates the need to travel to hospital in public transport as the patient will be picked from where a report is made. This reduces transmission of the virus as well as the cost of travelling to get health care.
Apart from that, it helps in decongesting healthcare facilities with unnecessary cases of people who may feel that they are suffering from the pandemic (hypochondria) whilst ensuring that cases of those unwilling to seek medical care are recorded. The application also helps in mapping hotspots, remote surveillance and ultimately enables policy makers and epidemiologists to plan using accurate and live data.
We appreciate the deep mobile penetration of smartphones in the country and we have made the downloading of the application free of charge and it can be shared amongst the users. We are also advocating that Internet Service Providers host it for free.
ST: HIT has a rich pool of innovative minds and hacks who have developed a number of applications to solve problems with limited resources. Just how do you feel about your achievements so far and your contribution to the country’s technological development thrust?
QK: We have developed HIT into a diverse and complex institution that is in a constant state of flux through embarking on a robust and aggressive human capital development path that has ensured that its staff members attain the highest technological qualifications possible in their fields of expertise. Consequently, we have also within HIT, the technology transfer, licensing and commercialisation centre that is responsible for technology transfer in terms of bringing about the commercialisation of inventions and discoveries flowing from research at HIT.
This is done through technology transfer, licensing our innovation outputs and other avenues including, but not limited to joint venture partnerships. It offers venture mentoring services and provides a forum for technopreneurship. It also advises on synthesis and extraction of registrable Intellectual Property.
The end game is the multiplication in the number of graduates with the stamina and pedigree to set up hi-tech enterprises.
ST: How do you intend to sustain such an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit into the future?
QK: The key ingredient is the need to continually review and refine our curriculum, whilst at the same time training and retraining our staff to root themselves in new and emerging technological developments and research so that our local research and innovation outputs can have global impact
ST: What are some of the challenges you think this new application will face? How do you intend to overcome some of these problems?
QK: We have navigated the roadmap for its implementation and did scenario mapping and planning, we are very optimistic that it will be implemented without any problems. In the unlikely event of problems with the app, we have a pool of technical people to resolve issues as well as train users.
ST: HIT has developed ventilators for critical care of Covid-19 patients. Are there any plans to develop other low-cost, easy-to-use technologies to further strengthen the country’s fight against the pandemic?
QK: Harare Institute of Technology has the biggest critical mass of machine designers, biomedical engineers and instrumentation engineers in the country. The pandemic has just opened our eyes to the limitless opportunities around us and the inherent potential that we possess. We now have an established School of Allied Health Sciences, with departments of Radiography, Biotechnology and Biomedical Engineering. These will work in an inter and multi-disciplinary approach with other departments of the University to develop technologies not only to fight the pandemic, but responsive to the national industrialisation and modernisation agenda.
ST: What are your hopes for the future in terms of innovation and the commercialisation of new products? Are you succeeding when it comes to commercialisation?
QK: If it is to be, it is up to us as nation to create the Zimbabwe we want! Our innovation ecosystem must be responsive to the inherent heritage base, inclusive of its vast natural resources the country has at its disposal by giving it value for the development of a modern and industrialised economy. We are succeeding in inculcating a culture of self-belief in our graduates and staff, which is key to the rapid industrialisation and modernisation of this country.