This African engineer is improving the healthcare sector one smart locker at a time

His invention earned him the 2019 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation.

Neo Hutiri and his invention - the Pelebox, which is improving the healthcare system in South Africa (JAMES OATWAY)

Neo Hutiri was inspired to create a smart pill dispenser five years ago . The 31-South African engineer got the idea after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2014. 

With his initial treatment phase being six months, this meant spending at least three hours in a queue every time he went to get his drugs from the pharmacy at his hospital in Johannesburg.

"Most of the other patients that waited along with me had to miss work just to collect their medicine," he said.

These long waits at the hospital inspired Hutiri to create the Pelebox Smart Locker - a digital dispenser stocked with drugs for patients with chronic conditions.

How Hutiri's device is changing the healthcare sector in South Africa

These lockers cut queues down "from three-and-a-half hours to under 36 seconds", he told BBC Focus on Africa.

With the Pelebox, patients have access to their drugs with a one-time pin sent to their phone. "This gives them the opportunity to not take too much time away from work, to focus on their business, to effectively live a more productive life without having lost time due to managing a disease," he said.

It also means patients with chronic illnesses like HIV and Aids no longer have to deal with stares from other people whenever they need to get their drugs.

"If you collect your ARV medication for HIV from a locker, you don't have to deal with the fear that somebody's watching me," he stated.

The Pelebox is currently being used in six public clinics in South Africa’s Gauteng province. There have been over 10,000 patient collections. 

“Eight more units are being manufactured and should be installed and operational within the next two months, also for Gauteng,” Hutiri has announced.

Hutiri wins Africa's biggest engineering prize

He has won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2019 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. 

This makes him the first South African to win this prestigious prize which is worth £25,000 ($31,000).  

“Hutiri is a deserving winner. Pelebox will improve healthcare for everyone using and working in a severely strained public healthcare system,” said Africa Prize judge, John Lazar.

Commenting on his win, he said, “Winning the Africa Prize is a massive achievement for us. We can now ramp up our manufacturing efforts using the prize money. The networks we are part of will also be instrumental for the growth of our business.”

Since the inception of the engineering Africa prize five years ago, more people have invented devices to improve the healthcare sector

Winners from previous years include a low-cost bloodless magnetic test for diagnosing malaria and a jacket for testing pneumonia.

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