Africa's neglected disease

by Gerald Chirinda, Founder and Executive Director of Tapiwa Capital 0

Ask the average person to name three diseases that are prevalent in Africa and they would most likely respond by saying “HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Ebola” based on what gets the most attention. But neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are among the most devastating groups of communicable diseases. More than 40% of the over 1.5 billion people affected by these debilitating diseases are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Until last September, I didn’t even know NTDs existed, let alone understand the disadvantage they wage on our continent’s societies and economies.

READ: Why this Nigerian multi-millionaire is working hard to eradicate neglected tropical diseases in Africa

NTDs are a group of parasitic and bacterial infectious diseases; the most prevalent of which are intestinal worms, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, (sometimes referred to as elephantiasis) blinding trachoma, and river blindness. These diseases can lead to malnutrition, stunted growth, disfigurement, and blindness – keeping children out of school and adults out of work and trapping people in a cycle of poverty. In fact, sub-Saharan Africa could gain $52 billion in economic productivity by 2030 if the World Health Organization’s 2020 control and elimination targets are met for the five most common NTDs.

As a Global Shaper and entrepreneur, I feel a responsibility to support my continent’s development. The Global Shapers community—an initiative of the World Economic Forum–gives me a platform to shine a light on issues hindering economic prosperity and empowerment, in my country and community. As founder and director of an investment and advisory firm focused on start-ups and early-stage companies in Zimbabwe, I am passionate about supporting my country’s growth potential. Furthermore, as a millennial, I feel my “digital native” generation is naturally pre-disposed to share information and raise awareness for issues like NTDs, creating a movement toward positive change. For these reasons, I have become a fervent supporter of the efforts to control these stealth causes of poverty in my own backyard.

My introduction to NTDs came just last September, when I met the END Fund, a private philanthropic initiative putting capital to work in pursuit of the bold ambition to end the most prevalent NTDs by 2020.  At a breakfast meeting in Harare, where I was invited as part of the Global Shapers Harare Hub, the END Fund opened my eyes to the economic implications of these diseases and the scalability of control efforts. Treatment typically costs just $0.50 per person per year, so it immediately became clear to me that the return on investment on this issue is unparalleled. I was taken aback by the obvious improvements that could be made to our economy by ending suffering caused by NTDs, and how many of us are simply unaware of the scale of these diseases.

Just 72 hours later, I was on the road with the END Fund, along with partners from Higherlife Foundation and the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, to witness a mass drug administration (MDA) in rural Zimbabwe. It was staggering how simple and effective the treatment programme is. The drugs they distribute are readily available through the largest-ever drug donation programme from pharmaceutical companies (worth over $4 billion annually, providing over 5.5 billion tablets since 2012). Seeing the END Fund and their partners in action, mobilising resources and facilitating existing solutions, opened my eyes to the practicalities of NTD control. This effort just needs our priority.

Recently, I was honoured to be asked by the END Fund to take part in their side-event during WEF Davos, a closed roundtable discussion which gathered philanthropic and industry leaders, from the highest ranks of business, government, and faith, to discuss how the progress of public private partnerships can end NTDs. I was proud to represent my generation at a table of influential world leaders, including Rwandan Minister of Natural Resources and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the heads of several pharmaceutical companies, discussing how we can work together to end these scourges. This experience (more here on CNBC Africa live) solidified my commitment to put NTD control on my generation’s agenda.

As millennials, we can bring our society to a higher standard of wellness by harnessing our enthusiasm to make a difference, and capitalising on our creativity through social media. My parent’s generation led the efforts against life threatening diseases like malaria. Now the torch has been passed to us to help fellow Africans to lead healthier, happier lives. For this reason, I encourage all young people to ask themselves, as I did, “How can I help?”  It is not always about the capital that we can put towards the cause, but rather the momentum we can build by utilising our networks to raise awareness and bring an end to preventable NTDs in sub-Saharan Africa as a matter of real urgency.