Africa’s economic revival is improving millions of people’s lives across this vast, dynamic continent. And yet, in many African countries, about one out of five newborns do not survive their first day of life. It can be hard being a mother or child in Africa. Today, 1 out of 16 sub-Saharan women risk death during their pregnancy or childbirth, compared to 1 in 4,000 in developed countries. Meanwhile, a quarter of sub-Saharan women cannot access health care or overall family planning services.

By embracing the global macro-trends in health care, such as digitization, next generation imaging technology and new care delivery models, we can reinvent the care these children and their mothers receive at all stages of life, giving them and Africa a better future.

Reinventing health care

Even when sub-Saharan Africa will have failed to reach the Millennium Development Goals, which were set to reduce maternal mortality by 75% by 2015, much can be done to support African mothers and children already in short term. This year the new and even more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals will be set, with the objective of reducing the global maternal, newborn and early life mortality rates, while granting universal access to sexual and reproductive care.

To achieve these goals however, Africa’s health care system needs to be reinvented. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on technology, particularly in imaging for diagnostics and early detection. And a smart approach is necessary to improve access and quality of care and to achieve cost efficiency.

Innovation will be a key driver to achieving this transformation. According to the World Bank, half of Africa’s economies have a technology hub. These are vibrant places where entrepreneurs join forces to innovate in such promising areas as apps for the continent’s 700 million mobile users. Each of these entrepreneurs is hoping to become the next m-Pesa, the home-grown mobile payment service that has given millions of people access to banking.

Imagine how a health care version of m-Pesa could give mothers personalized advice around prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Or how mobile phones and digital innovations can be combined to connect patients, care providers and public health workers with health systems and equipment. By connecting people and technology across the health continuum, Africa can lower the cost base of interventions and resolve the obstacles of distance, lacking infrastructure and shortage of medical professionals.

This is beginning to happen. In Uganda, midwives use portable ultrasound equipment to collect data from pregnant women in rural areas, which is sent to gynecologists via cell phones for evaluation. This Imaging the World project allows for early detection of complications and refers hundreds of women to appropriate care centers in time. And in South Africa, Philips has worked with the Rhiza Foundation to launch a mobile clinic that – literally – drives essential health care services, education and counseling to people living in townships.

Realizing Africa’s full potential

With one of the fastest-growing economies and populations in the world, the power and potential of the African continent are undeniable. Growth in sub-Saharan Africa is forecast at 5.8% in 2015 and Africa’s middle class will grow from 34% of the population today to 42% in 2060.

Africa is beginning to embrace public-private cooperation to speed up its health care transformation. Last year in Kenya, Philips worked with the government to launch its first Community Life Centre. Underpinned by a value delivery model, the center offers access to health care and lab equipment, but also provides clean water, solar power, refrigeration and IT solutions. This turns a local health facility into a hub that can nourish community life.

One well-known theory about the history of man argues that modern humans evolved in Africa and then spread to Asia and Europe. I believe that the current awakening of Africa as a modern economic force may lead to a similar trajectory. This could spark a new model for health care, giving not just Africa’s mothers and children a better future, but a new standard to be leveraged in many other parts of the world.

The World Economic Forum on Africa 2015 takes place in Cape Town, South Africa from 3-5 June.

Author: Ronald de Jong, Chief Market Leader, Royal Philips

Image: Women wait to have their babies examined at a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) hospital near the airport of the capital Bangui March 4, 2014. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola