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Zapping malaria with artificial intelligence



An Israeli start-up which aims to eliminate malaria using artificial intelligence (AI) has won first place in the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE Competition. Its work could have a real impact in Southern Africa.

On accepting the prize, Arnon Houri-Yafin, the chief executive and founder of Zzapp Malaria, said, “We will dedicate the prize money to one ambitious goal: demonstrating that rapid malaria elimination is possible in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Zzapp Malaria won $3 million (R42.7 million), as well as the People’s Choice Award as the most inspiring team. The AI XPRIZE is sponsored by IBM Watson, and recognises initiatives using AI to tackle some of humanity’s most pressing challenges in areas such as healthcare, education, global development, and exploration.

“Zzapp Malaria’s mission is to end malaria by treating water sources where mosquitoes reproduce,” says Michael Ben Aharon from Zzapp Malaria. “In tropical environments, those sources are often hard to find. We use AI to predict where stagnant water bodies are likely to occur, divide the work of treating them between fieldworkers, and track progress in real time.

“Each field worker can access the platform via a mobile app that’s built for simple mobile phones, with optimised battery usage for areas without a stable power supply and full useability even without an active internet connection.”

Their goal is simple: to eradicate malaria worldwide. “It’s a revolutionary goal, as the current paradigm suggests malaria in sub-Saharan Africa can be controlled or reduced but not eradicated. We believe we can change that,” says Ben Aharon. “Israel eradicated malaria and so did Florida, Greece, Egypt, and southern Italy. It can be done, and we believe our technology can do it. We’ve done it in Israel, and we can do it throughout the continent.”

Malaria is a huge burden on health systems. “The cost in human lives is immense, as it mostly threatens pregnant women and children under five. We could save tens of thousands of people in the region. Malaria exacts a heavy economic toll as well. It’s estimated a country’s GDP [gross domestic product] is lowered by more than 10% every year due to the impact of malaria. Eradicating the disease can be a huge boon to people’s lives, healthcare, and wealth.

“We seek to do the most good wherever we can. It just so happens that 95% of deaths from malaria occur in sub-Saharan Africa, that’s why we’re here. We’ll use the XPRIZE to expand our operations worldwide. We have a pilot project ongoing in São Tomé and Príncipe to show that malaria can be eradicated in an African, tropical environment. We’re also seeking partnerships with governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and health agencies worldwide for more pilots, and these funds will make it possible.”

While the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions organisation may protest against an Israeli company working in Africa, Ben Aharon says, “In Judaism, there’s a concept of pikuach nefesh (the sanctity of human life) which can cancel even something as strict as Shabbat. Without getting into the politics of this, the idea that making a political point is more important than human lives is something even most people who dislike Israel’s policies would have a hard time committing to. We’re here to save lives, we can argue about politics after we eradicate malaria.”

Asked when we’ll see the impact of this technology in Southern Africa, he says, “At the end of the day, we’re a technology company. We provide a service and a software solution for local partners. We depend on the government or local NGOs to work with us to implement our solution. We would absolutely love to work in South Africa if we had the right partner. Over the past few years, we’ve been working with Robbie Brozin, the visionary behind Goodbye Malaria, and exploring projects in the region.”

Goodbye Malaria is a social-benefit organisation and an African-run initiative founded by Brozin and other African entrepreneurs. It facilitates public-private partnerships, bringing together the private sector, the governments of Mozambique, Eswatini, and South Africa, as well as The Global Fund, while supporting malaria elimination programmes.

“We hope to bring Zzapp Malaria to South Africa specifically and Southern Africa in general very soon,” says Ben Aharon.

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