How an Ethiopian med-tech Startup is fighting COVID-19

The COVID-19 treatment wing at St Paul’s Hospital Millennium Medical College (SPHMMC) in Addis Ababa is saving thousands of Ethiopian Birr’s every day by reusing N95 masks. This thanks to Simbona Africa, a medical device Startup based at Jimma University in Jimma city, 300 kilometers south of Addis Ababa. Simbona has manufactured a decontamination cabinet that uses ultraviolet light (UVC) to kill coronaviruses. Studies show that 99.9% of coronaviruses are killed when exposed to UVC light[1].

With upwards of 110,000 confirmed cases and 1,700 fatalities as of November 30, Ethiopia like many countries is faced with a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Moreover, the country has a critical health worker shortage with only 0.96 health workers per 1000 of the population. This falls below the African average of 2.2 per 1000 and, is five times less than the minimum requirement of 4.45 per 1000 set by the World Health Organization to achieve the SGD health targets[2]. Considering that frontline health workers face as much as three times the risk of admission with COVID as the normal population[3], the need to ensure their safety is paramount.

Dr Abdu Adem knows this only too well. As a Clinical Oncologist at SPHMMC, Dr. Abdu previously focused mainly on treating cancer patients. Following the pandemic, he is now also in charge of infection control and safety, a role he takes very seriously. COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on patients with pre-existing conditions. With cancer patients on one side and health workers on the other, he cannot afford to take any chances. However, he is faced with an additional challenge. The demand for PPE to keep his colleagues and patients safe heavily outstrips the resources available.

Habtamu Abafoge and his team at Simbona Africa are helping to solve this problem. Habtamu’s training as a biomedical engineer at Jimma University equipped him with just the skills needed for such a situation; applying engineering principles to solve medical problems. After his studies, he founded Simbona Africa, the vehicle he would use to take his products to market. He has since built a phototherapy device to treat new-born jaundice and, an infant warmer to treat new-born hypothermia. These devices have been tested successfully and are awaiting market approval before they can be mass-produced.


Dr. Abdu has developed an elaborate standard operating procedure and trained his team to avoid the risks arising from re-using masks. Hospital staff deposit used masks in bags provided at the doffing area where PPE’s are removed. All the masks are coded with a user identifying code and tagged to track the number of use cycles. They are transferred to the UV room where the team -dressed in PPE- ensures the availability of sanitary plastic bags coded to correspond to each mask. They inspect each mask for physical damage and then place it in the cabinet for decontamination. After decontamination, the masks are inspected again for physical integrity then placed into transparent sanitary bags. Staff are then notified to collect their now sterile masks from the hospital pharmacy. Staff whose masks have been reused for 10 cycles are issued with new masks. The user-code is retained. During a tour to demonstrate this process, Dr Abdu said, ‘the UVC cabinet is easy to use and it has relieved the shortage of PPE’s which was a big headache for us.’

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The business partnership between Simbona Africa and SPHMMC is improving efficiency at this government-owned facility. It is enabling health workers to stay safe, keep their patients safe, and deliver the best level of care possible with the resources they have available. It is a great example of the role of market-based innovations in addressing health system challenges.

Habtamu has since moved into a new office in the Dembel city centre area of Addis Ababa. In addition to device sales, he is now also offering decontamination services using his room sterilizers. His alma mater, Jimma University was his first client. They have contracted him to sanitize 500 lecture and dorm rooms. He will need to employ and train staff for this job. This is increasingly pushing him beyond his comfort zone in the lab as an engineer, towards the market as a social entrepreneur. Villgro Africa is walking him through this process. In addition to funding, he is also receiving business coaching, market-readiness support, and connections to help him establish go-to-market partnerships.

Written by Mr. Moses Waweru - Senior Program Manager - Villgro Africa