In January 2014, South African Engineer from Johannesburg, Neo Hutiri was diagnosed with Tuberculosis (TB). He found that the most challenging part of managing his illness was the regular trips he had to make to the pharmacy to pick up his medication. The trips took a huge chunk out of his day and lead to time off work resulting in loss of income. This is what sparked his idea for Pelebox, a “Smart Locker” that allows patients to pick up their medication in a matter of minutes.
“Coming from an engineering background and having worked in an automation space has definitely influenced the kind of technologies that Technovera [Pelebox’s parent company] has developed,” says Neo Hutiri. “We are constantly asking questions on the role of technology and how it can help us shape some of the most challenging issues in healthcare.”
South Africa has world’s biggest ART (antiretroviral therapy programme) for patients living with HIV and AIDS, and there’s been a steady increase in the number of patients with non-communicable diseases (NCDs), requiring chronic therapy. 84 percent of South African citizens use public sector facilities for health services, and this combination of staff shortages and high patient volumes is what leads to extraordinarily long waiting times — waiting times of over 3 hours on average.
According to Pelebox, “a patient with a chronic illness is typically issued a repeat prescription lasting six months. During that time the patient will need to visit a pharmacy multiple times to pick up the medication they need. About 70% of a facility’s daily prescription load are devoted to servicing repeat prescriptions. A patient’s experience tends to be one of long waiting times, typically above 3 hours. Over 4.3 million man-hours are lost every month. This poses potential adherence barriers which may lead to poor health outcomes and places a strain on the patient in terms of transport costs and loss of income.”
Technovera (Pelebox’s parent company) has been working with the City of Tshwane and the National Department of Health in South Africa on a Pelebox pilot aimed at showing the impact of technology in reducing the average time spent in a clinic. So far, they have reached over 3000 patients with an average collection duration of 36 seconds — a huge improvement on 3 hours. There are currently six smart lockers operating in South Africa.
Hutiri was recently recognised for his invention by winning the 2019 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation from the Royal Academy of Engineering. Dedicated to improving the lives of chronically ill patients like himself, he says that he wants to give people “the opportunity to not take too much time away from work, to focus on their business and to effectively live a more productive life without having lost time due to managing a disease.”