Technology: The Key to Improving Global Health

December 9, 2015  • Paul F. Anderson

The Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship brings together expert voices from the developing world to help amplify their work in inciting global change. Supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the program offers Fellows a year-long program of media support training, research, and writing under the guidance of experienced mentors and trainers. The Class of 2015 Fellows recently sat down to discuss their work and the inspiration behind their accomplishments.

Read below to learn how three fellows are using technology to increase medical access, provide nutritional food options, and improve sanitation in developing countries.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. For social entrepreneur and data scientist Rubayat Khan, it came from a near-death experience.

Six years ago, Khan fell ill with cholera-like symptoms. Stuck in a rural part of Bangladesh without access to advanced medical care, he assumed that he would die. As Khan texted his girlfriend for what he believed was the last time, he realized that this — dying from a treatable disease — was a reality for more than 100 million people in his country. If he survived, Khan vowed to change the planet’s unbalanced resource system.

Khan eventually recovered from his illness and has made more than good on his promise. In 2008, he co-founded mPower Social Enterprises, which works to “design a world where everyone has access to quality services by harnessing the power of technology and innovation.” mPower — through partnering with NGOs like UNICEF and Oxfam, and donors such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — has established more than 50 programs in eight countries, which together benefit more than two million global citizens.

mPower’s projects fall under seven key areas: agriculture; livelihood and resilience; governance and accountability; community engagement; education; water and sanitation; and health. The latter category extends directly from Khan’s medical scare. Titled “mDoc,” the initiative allows remote health practitioners to access urban resources in order to deliver the best patient care through tablets and a custom mobile application.

Dr. Esther Ngumbi has an effervescent personality. When meeting her for the first time, she grinned, stuck out her hand, and said, “Hello! My name is Esther Ngumbi, and ‘science’ is my middle name!”

Ngumbi’s enthusiastic approach to life is evident in her work. Pairing her passions for entomology and sustainability, she conducted research on how soil microbes — microorganisms critical to human health — can help Kenyan agriculturalists farm in a way that is both environmentally and economically sound.

Through her investigation, Ngumbi found that applying microbes directly to seeds “is as effective as commercial pesticides” in combatting common pests like the rice leaffolder. Moreover, microbes can increase agricultural yields by up to 20 percent — helping to combat hunger in a country where nearly a fifth of the population is moderately to severely underweight.

Ngumbi’s findings are accessed by the Kenyan farming network through cellphones and “digital libraries” — community centers with iPads, pre-loaded with information on agricultural best practices.

The inspiration for her project came from concerns over earth and community health. She recognized that the pesticides used by farmers were not only damaging the planet, but people’s access to food.

When she isn’t busy revolutionizing agricultural practices, Ngubmi studies as a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University. She is also a motivational speaker, discussing issues such as hunger, gender, education, youth activism, and sustainability.

David Kuria knew there was a problem; but he also knew that he could fix it.

For eight years, Kuria worked to improve Kenya’s urban sanitation system. While he made meaningful strides with his innovative Iko Toilet, citizens, especially in rural areas, continued to die of water-related diseases.

The tipping point came when Kuria learned that 65 percent of health issues in Kenya are related to drinking water. At that moment, he realized that the country’s problem wasn’t just one of the need for improved sanitation — it was one of lack of access to clean water.

The Kenyan government was pouring money into treating water-related health issues. But Kuria realized that by focusing on the diseases — rather than a sustainable model of clean water access — the country’s health crisis would never be solved.

After identifying the root of the problem, Kuria co-developed Ikomaji: a social business that provides self-contained, solar-powered water purification systems to remote areas. The business model allows for community members to dispense water into safe jerry cans; the cans are branded with company logos, providing advertising opportunities for local businesses.

Though only four years old, Ikomaji has delivered 600 water units to 33 countries, decreasing water-related deaths in Kenya and around the world.


Khan, Ngumbi, and Kuria are three of 16 international fellows working to improve global health and development. Visit the New Voices Fellowship page to meet the entire 2015 fellow class, and to learn how their work is changing the world. 

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