A low-cost, reusable device that performs a non-invasive test for malaria earned the prestigious Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, awarded June 13 in Nairobi, Kenya. Brian Gitta, a 24-year-old software engineer, and his team developed Matibabu, a device that clips on to a finger and shines a beam of red light. Matibabu means “medical center” in Swahili.

Malaria is Uganda’s leading cause of death. Traditional testing requires a trained person to draw blood andMatibabu development team at the 2013 Microsoft Imagine Awards. Source: ImagineCup / CC BY-SA 2.0Matibabu development team at the 2013 Microsoft Imagine Awards. Source: ImagineCup / CC BY-SA 2.0 send the sample to a lab for a test that takes 30 minutes to process. This procedure is costly and can only be used where trained personnel and laboratory facilities are available.

“We are very proud of this year’s winner. It’s a perfect example of how engineering can unlock development – in this case by improving healthcare,” said Rebecca Enonchong, Africa Prize judge. “Matibabu is simply a gamechanger.”

Prize recipient Gitta, himself a past victim of the disease, set out to develop a simple, accurate diagnostic method that would not require a doctor or other medical personnel to administer or interpret and which would provide results quickly. Matibabu’s beam of red light detects the shape, color and concentration of red blood cells. The malaria parasite produces a form of waste that a magnet can detect. When the magnet finds this disease signal, it sends this information to a computer or smartphone, providing immediate results.

Gitta and his team started work on Matibabu in 2013. In the course of the device’s development he attracted attention and support from the USAID, the ResilientAfrica Network and Bill Gates. Previous awards include the U.N. Women’s Empowerment award in 2013 – which provided $12,000 towards research and the 2017 Bayer Foundations’ Aspirin Social Innovation Award. The Africa Award adds about $33,000 (25,000 British pounds) to research coffers.

Before the new technology is sent to market it will have to jump through the usual regulatory hoops. While pursuing regulatory approval Gitta and his team want to continue testing and refining the device. A potential path for introducing Matibabu is using it to test patients awaiting surgery.

British Royal Academy created The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation in 2014 to encourage engineers from sub-Saharan Africa to address critical problems through engineering innovation and ingenuity.