What role can digital play in Africa’s health challenges?

Technology can fight the double challenge of lack of health workers and the burden of endemic and emerging diseases.

October 5, 2022

Health workers at the community level have been equipped with smart glasses to enable them to do teleconsultations.

UNDP Mali/Abel Agblevo

Africa is the region of the world where health issues are the most critical. Out the 57 countries in the world suffering from a critical shortage of health personnel as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), 36 are in Africa, which has 0.21 doctors for every 1,000  people. Africa has just 1.3 percent of healthcare workers, yet it  bears 25 percent of the global disease burden.

The continent has not yet completed its epidemiological transition and must meet a double challenge. It must eradicate endemic diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, as well as fight against chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer. Added to these are the emerging infectious diseases such as COVID-19, Ebola, Lassa fever, and Monkeypox.

Issues regarding the funding of health systems are critical in Africa. Most African countries have still not achieved the targets set in the 2001 Abuja Declaration, in which governments agreed to allocate 15 percent of their national budgets to health.

Sub-Saharan Africa is affected by many challenges and health service deficiencies at different levels and in all countries.


To face these challenges, many efforts have been made by national and international politicians, but often without concrete results.

Digital health could provide an opportunity for the development of African health systems given the high penetration rate of mobile telephones and mobile phone usage.

The benefits of digital health include:

  • better patient care
  • increased revenue from health centres
  • more quality data for decision makers
  • reduced number of medical referrals and the costs of care, and ease of access to the limited number of specialists given the lack of doctors in several health centres, particularly in rural areas
  • capacity building of health workers through e-learning

Recognizing that information and communications technology bring new opportunities and challenges for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is a growing consensus in the global health community that the strategic and innovative use of digital technology  will be a key factor in achieving WHO's Triple Billion targets, by 2023. These aim to get 1 billion more people benefitting from universal health coverage, 1 billion more people better protected from health emergencies, and 1 billion more enjoying better health and well-being.

Digital technology is a key factor that will expand universal health coverage by eliminating a number of barriers such as costs, complicated access and lack of quality of care, while extending the range of services, particularly in regions where infrastructure and personnel are scarce or non-existent.

In 2020, UNDP Mali, in collaboration with other United Nations agencies including WHO and the University of Sherbrooke, initiated a project called  Solar energy, telehealth and social protection project to transform community health in Mali (SanDi).

It has strengthened the national telemedicine infrastructure, created a national digital health strategic plan, enabled legislation to regulate the use of digital technology in the health sector and a national digital health coordination platform.

In addition to strengthening the national telemedicine infrastructure SanDi has provided renewable energy to Malian health centres.

UNDP Mali/Abel Agblevo

SanDi has provided renewable energy  such as photovoltaic panels to the health centres. These have also received computer equipment and software for improved patient care and better access to care through computerized medical and laboratory records, pharmacy management systems, administrative and financial modules, teleconsultation and continued training.

Social protection and resilience activities have enabled internally displaced populations as well as women and young people  to receive health care.

Four hundred healthcare workers were trained on infection prevention and control.

This pilot phase of the SanDi project concerns the regions of Kayes, Koulikoro, Sikasso, Ségou, Mopti and Bandiangara, and the District of Bamako, and involves seven referral health centres and 21 community health centres.

UNDP wishes to continue supporting the Mali government in the progressive electrification and digitalization of health centres.