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Why Africa?

PopEx provides free licenses and support to all lower and middle-income countries (LMIC). Many people have asked our team about this; why we’re doing it, why (or if) it’s useful to these countries. 

Here’s the story: 

For the past sixteen years, I’ve had the great privilege of working with governments from over 25 countries throughout Africa, the Middle East and SE Asia, seeking to improve education, infrastructure and public health systems serving the world’s most vulnerable populations. My family and I lived in sub-Saharan Africa for 12 of those years, and our technical teams continue to work hard throughout most of the developing world. 

This trajectory originated in the manner of most Western development initiatives - a burning moral frustration about the mechanics of poverty combined with a naive, optimistic vision for feasible solutions. And after 16 years of countless interventions, theories, meals in mud huts and academic papers, poverty continues to be frustrating. Here is a potent illustration: writing this text, I have just returned from the outskirts of Chainda compound. Chainda is an ultra-poor, high density residential area in Lusaka, Zambia. Since 2014, my wife and I have poured support into Mary (name changed),  a woman whose sacrifice and compassion is readily on par with Mother Theresa. Mary’s local organization has provided food and education to street kids in Lusaka compounds for decades. Most of the street kids are orphans, parents and extended family having succumbed to any number of preventable and curable diseases. These kids end up scrounging Chainda in horrendous conditions for the equivalent of trash to eat. Today, one of the children, so ravaged from malnourishment, vomited continuously as he attempted to keep down the food provided by Mary and her team. He was no older than 6.

Watching this kid vomit is disgusting and offensive, not least because the world has no shortage of food, and quite obviously no shortage of money. Elon Musk recently raised a ruckus about not receiving a bonus package which is double - double - the entire GDP of Zambia in 2021. Zambia’s ‘GDP’, for those who skipped out on Econ 101, measures what the world paid for every single thing produced by all 20,569,737 Zambian workers in 2021. A shocking disparity, but not because Elon’s pay packages or capitalist systems are morally wrongheaded - I have zero complaint with either - but rather because my Western mind insists that there must be a mechanism to sustainably route this vast ocean of global resources to benefit Zambia; surely we can get food to the Chainda orphans. 



Truckloads of failed solutions and falsified ideals have tempered my original naiveté somewhat, thank goodness, but there is still far more to learn than my life will allow. And the moral imperative to do something about the disparity is as strong as ever. But effective and lasting solutions do not come easy. 

PopEx and Akros, two of the firms I co-founded, have been fortunate enough to find productive and effective workstreams within communities like Chainda, boosting the efficiency and effectiveness of education/health/infrastructure systems. Some of these have had monumental impact but most have failed. Informatics solutions and data science have been the defining theme for the past 10 or so years, but this wasn’t the original intent. Both firms came to Africa wanting to improve health and economic conditions, and the initial set of assumptions pointed towards programming. Take malaria for example: the world knows how to diagnose and treat malaria. Thanks to dedicated efforts of the global scientific community, it’s a super simple disease. So if there is still malaria in Africa then it must be a programming issue; the health system just needs to be trained on how to diagnose and treat it. The assumption, in retrospect, was idiotic but at the time it seemed logical enough. If you lack musculature, just go to the gym. That’s where you build muscle. 

pexels-kelly-17290985After several years of visiting dusty health facilities serving far-flung rural communities in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other countries, our incredibly talented and diverse team had a collective facepalm moment: all of these health systems were flying blind. Most facilities would have floor-to-ceiling stacks of handwritten paper records detailing patient encounters. Thousands of records covering multiple years, containing god-knows-how-many malaria cases (amongst other things). Transmitting these data to health system managers almost always took months if not years, and therein lay a critical flaw: by the time community-level epidemic information was received at the national levels, the wave of sickness and death at the community level would have already passed. 

To paint a fuller picture, effective health systems master a tripartite logistical puzzle: putting the right things (drugs, diagnostics) in the right places (patients, communities) at the right time (prevention or curation windows). Think of it from a first-world perspective: if you have a medical emergency and you call an ambulance, you would want that ambulance to show up now. Time is of the essence. If the dispatcher schedules the ambulance to visit in a week’s time, the health system would have failed you in your moment of need. Obviously. In similar fashion, our countries were experiencing a deadly variant of this failure: the proverbial ‘ambulance call’ was not being placed. Due to paralysis and extreme congestion in the data aggregation and transmission cycles, those managing the health systems had zero opportunity to mount an effective response. 

Which brings us to today. PopEx continues to invest heavily in accelerating the ambulance call. For many LMICs, the size and location of vulnerable populations remains a mystery. Census data can be flawed, and it's almost always inaccessible to education/health/infrastructure systems. And if you don’t know the size or location of vulnerable populations, you simply can’t send the right number of drugs, education materials, latrines, water points or any number of other critical services. People will be missed, disease and poverty will continue to spread unchecked. The problem is simple, but incredibly challenging. 

So what are we doing about it? 

PopEx serves up high-resolution, satellite derived global population data through an intuitive, easy-to-use interface. And while the first-world sees incredible value from PopEx in identifying and targeting private-sector markets, our mission among LMICs is to provide crystal clear visibility into the number and location of vulnerable communities, giving education/health/infrastructure systems a fighting chance to mount an effective response. We remain firm in our commitment to providing LMIC governments free access to the entire range of PopEx systems and tools, and will continue to seek feasible solutions to break the suffocating cycles of poverty and sickness in the world.