The college kids who reinvented the ultrasound
Expectant mothers line the maternity ward corridor, wearily waiting for medical attention. In rooms off to the side, undersized cots hold several women but those without beds must wait at the doors. The midwives and nurses at Uganda’s largest hospital dart from patient to patient, doing what they can to help.
“Imagine Cup affirmed to me that I am part of a new breed of African youth: the kind that have the skills, ability and passion to make things that will change the course of Africa and the world.”
Working at the Mulago Hospital in the Ugandan capital of Kampala during a break before university, Aaron Tushabe is struck by the crowds and the suffering. He thinks not only about those who are waiting in the long lines but the 80 percent of Ugandans who live in rural areas and can’t make the trek to the capitol for medical care. Aaron leaves the hospital determined to find a way to help.
Months later, attending a hackathon with fellow university freshman Josh Okello, the two meet Joseph Kaizzi, an IT expert and Imagine Cup participant who encourages them to create a team for the upcoming competition. Imagine Cup is a global student technology program and competition that provides opportunities for students to team up and use their creativity, passion and knowledge of technology to create applications, games and integrated solutions that can change the way we live, work, and play. One competition asked technologists to address the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) —including improving maternal health and infant mortality. Aaron and Josh, who spent some time in medical school before pursuing IT degrees, both thought of the Mulago Hospital. Their collective experience with maternal health and maternity wards led them to seek a solution for women in their community.
Tackling the MDGs, one problem at a time
“We wanted to solve a problem that would have a cascading effect on all the other MDGs,” says Josh. “Statistics show that communities with healthy mothers are more successful. We felt that the goals around education, economic growth and development would be easier to tackle after maternal health.”
They created Team Cipher256, named after the country code for Uganda. In their team strategy sessions, Aaron recalled his failed attempt at using the Pinard horn, a device similar to a stethoscope named after the French doctor who invented it. Widely used in Africa as an alternative to the ultrasound, the device picks up vital signs when placed on a pregnant woman’s abdomen. But it takes practice to read it correctly and only skilled nurses can interpret the sounds. Aaron and Josh became determined to find a way for computer science to change that.
They set out to create a portable, mobile and affordable tool to help mothers with prenatal care. The result was WinSenga (Win for Windows and Senga is the Luganda word for auntie, the woman charged with guiding mothers in reproductive health). WinSenga is a handheld device that can scan a pregnant woman’s womb and report fetal weight, position, breathing patterns, gestational age, and heart rate. It uses a plastic trumpet-shaped device, similar to the Pinard horn, and a microphone. The information is transmitted to a smart phone and into the mobile application that plays the part of the nurse’s ear and recommends a course of action. The analysis and recommendations are uploaded to the cloud and can be accessed by a doctor anywhere to track progress at any time.
Increasing access to prenatal care
WinSenga will give high-risk mothers in rural areas access to prenatal care. Uganda has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, and according to UNICEF, less than 40 percent of mothers make the recommended four prenatal visits due to long distances to hospitals, lack of effective equipment, and understaffing. “Most clinics in rural areas don’t have ultrasound machines and women can’t afford to travel,” Aaron says. A prenatal visit costs about 20,000 Uganda shillings (US$10) in the Mulago Hospital.
Worldwide , every minute an expectant mother dies from complications related to pregnancy or child birth: 70 percent of those deaths occur in developing countries, disproportionately in Sub-Saharan Africa. WinSenga allows those without access to healthcare facilities a locally designed solution.
“We believe that for a technology to work and serve the user, two fundamental issues must be addressed: affordability and access,” says Josh. “The former puts the tech in the hands of the user and the latter helps them get it more easily.”
Team Cipher256 entered and won the Microsoft East and Southern African Imagine Cup National Finals and then competed in the World Finals in Sydney. They were beat in Australia, but undeterred, they applied for an Imagine Cup Grant and found out they won a $50,000 grant at the Social Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley. Imagine Cup and the Imagine Cup Grants are both part of Microsoft YouthSpark, our initiative focused on creating opportunities for youth to realize their full potential through programs that strengthen education, expand digital inclusion, and give young people the tools they need to change their world.
The entrepreneurial project and the grant money resulted in the creation of the company Cipher256 which now employs seven people. The team continues to work on development and is preparing for a nationwide clinical trial. The young entrepreneurs are using some of the perks of their Imagine Cup Grant to support their business efforts. Microsoft BizSpark provides them with free software, support and visibility for their startup. Both Josh and Aaron are also Microsoft Student Champs: members of an online community that connects them with other young entrepreneurs and industry professionals.
Their company is housed in the Microsoft Innovation Centre in Uganda, a hub that provides employment, education and entrepreneurship opportunities for Ugandan youth. In Uganda, youth unemployment is above 60 percent. Josh and Aaron’s parents are teachers and the young men were fortunate to be able to attend boarding schools and university, but they are grateful for the entrepreneurial opportunity the Imagine Cup experience provided. They are already paying it forward by working as volunteers.
“Imagine Cup helped me grow professionally, opened my eyes, and gave me a platform to inspire many other young people,” Josh says. “It affirmed to me that I am part of a new breed of African youth: the kind that have the skills, ability and passion to make things that will change the course of Africa and the world.”