Ugandan Brian Gitta wins Africa Prize for bloodless malaria test invention

The Royal Academy for Engineering’s Africa Prize awards young African innovators, using their skills to find solutions to the challenges facing their communities, with a cash prize to support their work. Its recent awardee, Brian Gitta, is the first Ugandan to win the prize, and the youngest winner till date.

24-year-old Ugandan inventor Brian Gitta, the winner of the $33,000 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, created a device called “Matibabu” which detects malaria without drawing blood, according to a statement by Royal Academy of Engineering.

The disease is common in Uganda, and affects tens of millions of people across sub-Saharan Africa, but obtaining a diagnosis can be expensive and time-consuming. “Matibabu,” which means “treatment” in Swahili, works by examining red blood cells when clipped to a patient’s finger and does not require a specialist to operate. The device shines a red beam on a patient’s finger which identifies malaria symptoms and sends the results of the patient’s test straight to their cell phone.

Brian Gitta, a 24-year-old Ugandan, became the youngest winner of the Africa Prize this week for developing a bloodless test for malaria. Photo: Royal Academy of Engineering/Twitter

“Malaria is the leading cause of death in Uganda, but it took four blood tests to diagnose Mr Gitta with the disease,” Shafik Sekitto, who is part of the Matibabu team, told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme.

“Gitta brought up the idea: ‘Why can’t we find a new way of using the skills we have found in computer science, of diagnosing a disease without having to prick somebody?” Mr Sekitto said. Gitta and his colleagues at Makerere University in Kampala, where they studied, became consumed with the problem and inspiration, when it struck, came not from the academic world, but from the app store.

“I remember Shazam [the music identification app] had just come out, you just put on a few seconds of a song and you get a result,” recalled Shafik Sekitto, who worked closely with Gitta. “We thought: can we not do something like that for malaria?”

The invented device Matibabu can detect any changes to colour, shape and concentration of red blood cells, all key malaria indicators. The result is available within one minute, and can be sent directly to a smartphone. Because it makes diagnosis so easy, and so fast, it has the potential to save lives.

Gitta won more than $33,000 as the first-place winner at a ceremony in Nairobi, Kenya, where Africa Prize judges and a live audience voted for the most promising engineering innovation. Three runners-up won more than $13,000 each.

“We are incredibly honored to win the Africa Prize—it’s such a big achievement for us, because it means that we can better manage production in order to scale clinical trials and prove ourselves to regulators,” Gitta said.

So far, trials show that Matibabu has around 80% accuracy in accurately diagnosing malaria. But Gitta, Sekitto and their team have been refining the technology which underpins it, and are confident that new clinical trials will demonstrate 90%-plus accuracy—on par with microscopic examinations, the current gold standard when it comes to malaria testing.

“We are very proud of this year’s winner. It’s a perfect example of how engineering can unlock development—in this case by improving healthcare. Matibabu is simply a game changer,” said judge Rebecca Enonchong.

The Matibabu team plans to use the prize money to fund the next round of clinical trials, which will involve tests on 380 patients; and to help with the difficult process of obtaining regulatory approval for the product. Although the business plan is still being finessed, Gitta said that the device will likely sell for around $100 per unit when it is ready for market.

“It’s a perfect example of how engineering can unlock development – in this case by improving healthcare,” says Judge Enonchong.