Medicine dispensing innovation wins engineering prize

medicine in a box
Medicine displayed in a pharmacy Copyright: EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie, CC BY-ND 2.0

Speed read

  • Patients with chronic diseases spend about four hours to collect their medicines at health facilities
  • Innovation that cuts the medicine dispensing time to only 36 seconds wins a top award
  • Innovator plans to boost its scale-up in South Africa and other countries

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The innovator of a smart locker system designed to dispense medicines to patients in less than 36 seconds has won the 2019 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation.
Public health institutions are resource-constrained and healthcare workers are overwhelmed, resulting in them being unable to attend to patients faster.

South Africa alone has close to five million patients on anti-retroviral treatment and collecting their refills monthly, according to the WHO.

Patients collecting chronic medicines wait for close to four hours at public health centres, says Neo Hutiri, a 31-year-old South African engineer who invented the innovation called Pelebox. 

“Pelebox takes pressure off medical teams and gives patients on chronic medicines valuable time back.”

Neo Hutiri, Pelebox

“Pelebox takes pressure off medical teams and gives patients on chronic medicines valuable time back, ensuring the collection process is tracked and auditable,” explains Hutiri. “This is the highest stamp of approval that our innovation could have hoped for. As an engineer, building a socially-minded solution was important to me and this award is a nudge that we are in the right direction.”

Hutiri received the first prize of £25,000 (about US$31,000) from the Royal Academy of Engineering, the founder of the competition.

“Pelebox will improve healthcare for everyone using and working in a severely strained public healthcare system,” adds John Lazar, one of the competition’s judges, in a statement released this month (4 June) by the Royal Academy of Engineering.  

According to Hutiri, his team started working on the project in 2015 but the first unit became operational in 2017 and was pilot-tested in 2018.

“Each Pelebox unit has 72-99 doors and can serve 1,200 patients per month,” Hutiri says.

The innovation, according to Hutiri, shows that science in Africa can now drive a digitally connected Africa particularly to inspire young people by elevating the standards of applied science and how they can shape innovations.

Patient Dhliwayo-Chiunzi, a biotechnologist at the Harare Institute of Technology in Zimbabwe, tells SciDev.Net that the Pelebox is a needed innovation, which has incorporated aspects of patient privacy to a large extent.

“You realise the Pelebox operates like those food dispenser machines, hence it is quite user-friendly,” Dhliwayo-Chiunzi explains.

She advises patients using the Pelebox to access their medications at designated times to ensure that they take their medicines as expected.

Hutiri tells SciDev.Net that six Pelebox units have been installed at public hospitals in South Africa, with 42 units expected to be available by the end of the year partly through a contract with the South African government

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.