A Kenyan university student has won a $100,000 research grant for an idea aimed at decreasing maternal and infant deaths among cattle-raising families on the Kenya-Ethiopia border.
Dahabo Adi Galgalo secured the 2017 innovation award from AESA, Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, for designing a GPS-like device to track expectant mothers in the area and ensure they seek health care for themselves and their babies.
Born into a pastoralist family in Kenya's Marsabit County, Dahabo told VOA Horn of Africa that she always wanted to improve health care for families in the border area who depend on raising and selling livestock to make a living.
"The area of the pastoral community is so vast. The hospitals and health workers are very few. In fact, Marsabit County is among the top counties in Kenya in maternal and infant death," she said.
One of the key factors contributing to the high death rates, she believes, is a lack of antenatal care (ANC) for pregnant women.
ANC clinics providing prenatal services are few and far between in the area, and pastoralists don't often visit the ones that do exist, partly because of the long distances they would have to cover.
Dahabo says that in 2015, she conducted a study of mothers who gave birth at a regional hospital. Out of 1,042 mothers who delivered during the one-year period, she says, 116 lost their babies during delivery.
Of those 116 women, she says, 40 percent had never gone to an ANC clinic. And those who did make a visit, often traveled 50 to 80 kilometers to receive checkups and treatment.
"That is when my idea of going mobile came to my mind," Dahabo said.
Her goal was to give expectant mothers a GPS-like device to help health care workers track them, remind them to get proper antenatal care, and arrange a visit with a doctor or health care volunteer.
The solar-powered device — which Dahabo helped design and a manufacturer is helping to build — is the size of a coin, and designed to be worn on a bracelet.
"With this, we can track the expectant mothers wherever they are and give them treatment," she said.
Under Dahabo's envisioned system, the program would be centered at the Moyale regional hospital and would cover the majority of Marsabit County with a radius of 160 kilometers.
The program aims to reach up to 200 expectant mothers for an initial period of two years. "We follow the expectant mothers for nine months and follow their children for full immunization," Dahabo said.
Dahabo has been involved in research and control of diseases for more than 10 years in the Kenyan ministry of health.
She is among eight African inventors who have received research grants from AESA, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
One of the other winners, Diawo Diallo from Senegal, is working on a surveillance system to track Zika-infected mosquitoes.
Another winner, Niaina Rakotosaminanana of Madgascar, is developing a low-cost, minimally invasive diagnostic test for pregnant women using blood samples drawn from finger pricks.