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September 23, 2017

Grand Challenges African forum set for Nairobi

Kedest Testagiorgis- Programme officer Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Kedest Testagiorgis- Programme officer Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

In 2003, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched Grand Challenges in Global Health ( GCGH). It focused on 14 major scientific challenges that, if solved, could lead to key advances in preventing, treating, and curing diseases in the developing world.

The Grand Challenge framework encompasses global health, water, energy, environment, food, education, security, and poverty. It focuses on research efforts and engaging the world’s best researchers. Projects are selected based on public, transparent calls for proposals seeking the best ideas. Funders, investigators, and other stakeholders actively collaborate to accelerate progress and integrate advances to ensure that they serve those most in need.

Founders: Melinda and Bill Gates. 

The projects that are funded are selected not only for scientific excellence but also for their likelihood to achieve the desired impact.

“Since its inception, we have awarded 1811 grants in 82 countries around the world. My portfolio as programme officer at the foundation involves being engaged in every stage of development and implementation of Grand Challenges. I am involved in both the strategic development and execution management of Grand Challenges. When we started we were giving large and long term grants but one of our lessons learnt was that in discovery work, especially scientific discovery, five years is a very longtime and a lot of things change,” says Kedest Testagiorgis.

“Instead of these long term, multi-year multi-dollar grants, we would give a shorter period to test a new idea and then give them small funds and the opportunity to come back with some data and apply for follow-up funding. We called that branch exploration. We felt it was a way for the Gates foundation to explore new ideas in new places that we haven’t worked before.”

Grand challenge exploration was launched in 2007 and since then, twice each year, it invites high-risk, high-reward proposals on a range of challenges/ proposals. The two-page applications are submitted online and are open to anyone from any discipline, from student to tenured professor, and from any organisation, including colleges and universities, government laboratories, research institutions, non-profit and for-profit organisations.

Prof Berhanu Abegaz, executive director of AAS.

Initial grants of Sh10 million are awarded, and successful projects have the opportunity to receive follow-on funding of up to Sh100 million. Winning grants are chosen approximately five months from the submission deadline.

Over the years, the programme has evolved into a vibrant network of international partnerships focused on building an ecosystem of innovation. They include USAid, New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), the National Natural Science Foundation of China and most recently the African Academy of Sciences (AAS).

Launched in September last year, the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (Aesa), is a new initiative that aims to help drive Africa’s research agenda and build scientific capacity across the continent. Aesa was created by the AAS and Nepad with sh56m in initial seed funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

The Aesa launch ceremony also featured the announcements of two grant programmes intended to support Africa’s future research leaders: the Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science (DELTAS) Africa Awards and Grand Challenges Africa.

Endorsed by African Heads of State and Government, the Nairobi-based Aesa aims to support the implementation of the African Union’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy (STISA-2024) and the African Health Strategy (AHS) for 2015-2030.

In addition to serving as a scientific think-tank, Aesa will manage more than Sh7 billion in Africa-focused research programmes as part of its broader effort to build pan-African scientific capacity and leadership.

“Building capacity for science, technology and innovation is a strategic and critical investment for Africa’s future,” said Prof Berhanu Abegaz, executive director of AAS during the launch. “Today, we are proud to launch new initiatives that will help harness Africa’s scientific potential to contribute to the wellbeing of Africa’s people.”

Initially, Grand Challenges Africa will focus on supporting the over 400 existing Grand Challenges grantees in Africa. The programme will ultimately develop, launch and manage Africa-specific Grand Challenges targeted to the development challenges preventing African countries from reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. One of their projects this year is the 2016 Grand Challenges Africa Community Meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

The meeting will be held at the InterContinental Hotel from February 24-26. It will be a convening of the African grantees.

In 2015 the Grand Challenges gave seven grants to Kenyan innovators. Below are their proposed initiatives:


Lake Victoria Islands MalSchistoHel Integrated Project

Grand Challenges Explorations-Community-Based Interventions

Jessa Gitaka of Mount Kenya University in Kenya is working to integrate surveillance and control of three diseases - malaria, schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths - in five Lake Victoria islands where these diseases are highly prevalent. This should improve cost-effectiveness and promote greater participation.

They have already established facilities and systems to semi-annually survey malaria in the region, which includes a 30-person motorboat to access the islands, a parasitology laboratory and trained personnel. They will exploit this setup to first collect general data and identify those who are infected during clinic visits and household surveys, and then perform mass drug administration for schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths using standard treatments.


Combining Visceral Leishmaniasis Risk Mapping and Deworming

Grand Challenges Explorations- Community-Based Interventions

Hussein Abdullahi of Wajir County Government in Kenya will combine a mass drug administration effort to treat soil-transmitted helminth (parasitic worm) infections in Wajir County with a survey of the number of cases of visceral leishmaniasis, which is transmitted by sand flies. Visceral leishmaniasis can be lethal and has recently become endemic in this poor Kenyan county, but the actual disease burden is unknown.

They will compile community data on mapped settlements in two subcounties, and recruit and train local health workers to distribute questionnaires to help identify past and present cases of visceral leishmaniasis, which will help identify risk factors. In parallel, these workers will distribute deworming drugs, which has been difficult in the area due to low attendance rates at schools where mass deworming efforts normally take place.


NFC Payment System for Non-Smartphones

Grand Challenges Explorations- Mobile Money

Jonathan Gikabu of Equity Group Foundation in Kenya will incorporate near field communication (NFC) tags into low-cost mobile phones for secure mobile money payments. NFC tags enable short-range wireless communication between mobile phones and other devices for contactless and rapid mobile payments. They are commonly incorporated into smartphones, but these are too expensive for the average citizen in developing countries.

He will assemble ultra thin NFC ferrite sheet antennas affixed to the back of SIM cards into inexpensive handsets, and analyse them for making payments and for security. In partnership with a leading mobile network operator in Kenya, he will then pilot test the phones on a group of local students for making purchases using virtual money via an NFC-compliant payment terminal set up at the university.

Ernest Makotsi of Wayo Company Ltd.


Real-Time Data on Customer Experiences

Grand Challenges Explorations- Financial Services Data

Ernest Makotsi of Wayo Company Ltd. in Kenya will develop a mechanism for customers to provide immediate feedback on their retail experiences in Nairobi using mobile phones. Real-time feedback is thought to be more attractive for users and more valuable for providers, and having a mobile phone interface means feedback can be provided and analysed from any location.

They have developed the programme, and will set up the technology in regional retail shops that provide digital financial services and advertise the event to promote customer participation. The data can be used by retailers to improve their customer services, and be sold to interested parties.


Merchants on the Go

Grand Challenges Explorations- Mobile Money

Geraldine O’Keeffe of Software Group KE Ltd. in Kenya will develop a smartphone application so that smaller merchants in developing economies can use one system to receive mobile money from customers with different providers, and can digitally track sales and inventory. They will also explore options for subsidising the technology including offering the generated data to financial service providers and others.

Their approach will allow merchants to easily register online to encourage uptake, also reducing recruitment costs. They will customise their mobile application for the Kenyan market, integrate it with existing payment service providers, and perform a pilot study over three to four months with 25-50 merchants to evaluate functionality and usage for refining the platform.


Creating the “M-Kopa” of Data Collection

Grand Challenges Explorations - Financial Services Data

Punit Shah of OkHi in Kenya will build a platform to provide up-to-date information on financial access endpoints such as ATM locations by crowd sourcing data from smartphones from a network of users.

Current tech-based data collection tools are not ideal as they are generally expensive, and the data quickly become outdated. They will build an app and run a six-month pilot test by providing locked smart phones with limited functions to potential data collectors in Nairobi, one smaller city and one rural location.

As data collectors complete set collection missions using their phones, more functions will be unlocked until the user becomes the owner of the phone, whereby subsequent missions are rewarded with free airtime. The data will be analysed to determine the frequency of updates, and integrated with open data platforms to broadly disseminate the information and enhance its value.



Grand Challenges Explorations - Mobile Money

Daniel Bloch of Bitsoko in Kenya will develop their mobile money platform known as Bitsoko, which integrates Blockchain technology for low-cost transactions mediated by bitcoins. They have built a mobile wallet and a point-of-sale service for merchants that allows money to be easily and securely transferred around the world using only a Bitsoko username, phone number or bitcoin wallet address.

Bitsoko will also offer simplified options for paying household bills and payrolls. They will raise awareness of their platform to scale up the number of users and merchants, and continue to evaluate the security and capability of the platform.

“It’s important for people to realise that in discovery, its all about risk and not every investment has worked out. To us the crazier the idea, the more attractive it is. Discovery science takes time, resources and determination. We should be ambitious but also comfortable with a high rate of failure. We also realised that technology is not enough. We need to better understand how potential solutions will actually be used in poor countries, and we need to seek solutions from innovators in the countries that will benefit,” concludes Kedest.


– Additional reporting by agencies

Grand Challenges Timeline

2003 - Grand Challenges in Global Health (GCGH) is launched.

2005 - GCGH makes its first grants, initially awarding 45 grants totaling $436 million to scientists in 33 countries.

2008 - Grand Challenges Explorations is announced, creating a fast-track process to engage new thinkers

2010 - Grand Challenges Canada is launched, investing in ideas that integrate science and technology, business and social innovation.

2011 - Global partners launch ‘Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development’. Seeking groundbreaking prevention and treatment approaches for pregnant women and newborns in poor, hard-to-reach communities around the time of delivery.

2012 - Grand Challenges Brazil is launched, focusing on reducing the burden of pre-term birth.

2013 - Grand Challenges India begins and launches a ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’.

2014 - Global partners’ launch three new initiatives aimed at creating breakthroughs in science at the 10th annual Grand Challenges meeting in Seattle; Grand Challenges South Africa is launched.

2015 - Five Grand Challenges are launched: Africa Grand Challenges, Grand Challenges Thailand, Grand Challenges Japan, Grand Challenges China and Grand Challenges Ethiopia.

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