Surcle: Inventor Wins Royal Academy of Engineering Prize for Smart Medicine Dispenser

Five years ago, native South African Neo Hutiri encountered a medical treatment problem millions of people face every day. Now, the 31-year-old inventor has created a prescription dispensing solution that has the potential to optimize healthcare on a global scale. After winning the Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2019 African Prize for Engineering Innovation, Hutiri now has resources to help him change the world for the better.


A Serious Distribution Problem

After contracting tuberculosis, Hutiri went to a public clinic in Vanderbijlpark in 2014 to pick a six-month course of medication. After arriving, he spent more than three hours waiting to receive the medicine he needed to keep breathing. Hutiri found that the problem stretched far beyond his small industrial city. Because South Africa is home to the world’s largest antiretroviral (ART) program, millions of the nation’s citizens endure long wait times to get access to life-saving prescriptions.

Indeed, South African workers lose 4.3 million hours a month standing in medical dispensary queues.

Admittedly, the country’s ART initiative is impressive. From 2010 to 2015, South Africa saw a 25 percent increase in national HIV and AIDS treatment. However, its distribution system leaves a lot to be desired. Hutitri sought to fix the problem. Having earned a master’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of the Witwatersrand, Hutiri conceived an ingenious electronic solution.

To realize his plan, the young engineer founded a startup called Pelebox. Along with a team of software engineers and technologists, Hutiri started work on a smart medicine distribution system. Eventually, the company built a brilliant, simple machine that gives patients rapid access to their prescriptions.

First, healthcare workers stock a series of internet-enabled lockers with medication. Once the prescription refills are made, the system sends a one-time PIN to chronically ill patients. Finally, the medicine recipient comes to the smart locker kiosk, types in their PIN, and accesses their medication.

Typically, a South African patient has to wait 3.5 hours to collect their prescriptions. By comparison, Pelebox users can access their medicine in less than 36 seconds.


2019 African Prize for Engineering Innovation Winners

Needing resources to expand his operation, Hutiri entered the Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2019 African Prize for Engineering Innovation. For the last five years, the Royal Academy has rewarded engineers who have created innovations that will benefit the African people. Impressed with his work, the institution put Hutiri on a shortlist of 16 entrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Subsequently, the Pelebox team spent eight months receiving Royal Academy mentoring on how to bring their product to the marketplace. As a result, the startup secured a trademark for its brand and moved from product development to manufacturing.

After completing the training phase, Hutiri and three other competitors went to Kampala, Uganda for the contest’s finals. There, the four groups presented their innovations to a panel of African prize judges and a live audience. Ultimately, Pelebox won the grand prize of £25,000 ($31,443). Additionally, the firm gained access to more bespoke mentoring and the Academy’s network of notable and experienced engineers and experts.

With the Royal Academy backing, Pelebox founder Neo Hutiri has the required resources to improve the quality of life for chronic illness patients in his homeland and across the world.


Runners Up and Shortlisted Entries

The Royal Academy also handed out £10,000 ($12,576) prizes to the competition’s runners-up:

KAOSHI: Nigerian developer Chukwunonso Arinze’s mobile application allows for peer-to-peer currency exchange.

Sign-IO: Kenyan software engineer Roy Allela’s enterprise made smart gloves that translate sign language into speech and text via mobile application.

Smart Havens Africa: Ugandan engineer Anne Rweyora’s social enterprise builds sustainable and affordable smart houses to make homeownership more accessible for African women.

The institution also revealed the following 12 startups made the 2019 African Prize for Engineering Innovation shortlist.

3-D-3-P Industrial Dryer: Created by Professor Dele Sanni from Nigeria, the 3-D-3P food dryer is an industrial device that quickly converts grain to livestock feed.

Baby Delivery Kits: Founded by Zambia native Muzalema Mwanza, this startup makes low-cost and disposable equipment that helps midwives deliver babies safely.

ChanjoPlus: Kenyan developer Collince Oluoch’s entry was a health tech program that collates immunization data.

Elo-Cart: Kenyan engineer Kenneth Guantai’s invention is a system that collects motion energy to fuel a battery-powered cart that can be used by farmers, healthcare workers, and merchants.

Hybrid Parallel-Serial Machine Tool: Developed by South African technologist Lukas du Plessis, this contest entry is a low-cost productivity-enhancing device.

JuakaliSmart: Kenyan software engineer James Ochuka submitted an online marketplace that allows Juakali (informal artisans) to sell their wares directly to consumers.

Majik Water: Another Kenyan maker, Beth Koigi, invented a device that harvests drinking water for rural communities from the air.

Smart Brooder: Kenyan engineer George Kimani presented a new agricultural Internet of Things device to the Royal Academy. The Smart Brooder uses age data to provide adequate warmth for farming poultry.

SolarKoodo: The only submission from the West African nation of Burkina Faso, Safiatou Nana’s SolarKoodo irrigates sunlight specifically for semi-arid regions.

The Vertical Farm: A miniaturized farming solution, Ugandan engineer Paul Matovu’s Vertical Farm turns urban waste into high-yield fertilizer.

WellNewMe: Nigerian coder Obi Igbokwe presented an algorithm that can forecast the risk of a patient contracting a non-communicable illness.

Zenafri: Finally, Nigerian developer Elizabeth Kperrun entered the contest with an educational mobile application platform for African children and adults.

Africa-based individuals and small teams interested in securing the Royal Academy of Engineering’s support can do so now. The institution is taking submissions for Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation through July 22. Interested innovators can apply to enter the contest here.


Photo credit: Royal Academy of Engineering

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