Meet the Ugandan entrepreneur who is bringing AI to the COVID-19 fight

Chime Asonye
Dec 11, 2020 · 8 min read

Innovator Dr. William Wasswa and his team at Global Auto Systems have pivoted their business multiple times to address a wide range of pandemic-related issues and respond with smart technological solutions to aid Ugandans as they face COVID-19.

This month Uganda recorded a new milestone: contracting 576 new coronavirus cases, its highest daily increase since the country reported its first case in March. As the disease has spread, the country has faced over 20,000 cases, but compared to the rest of Africa it has one of the lowest numbers of cases and the fourth-lowest number of COVID-19 related deaths per million as of September 10, 2020. Some of these results can be attributed to an effective national response, but there ARE other efforts from social entrepreneurs that are helping Uganda stem this viral strain.

LPLS applicant, Global Auto Systems, is one. The business has been pivoting, innovating, and finding solutions to fight COVID-19 to help secure the health and safety of Ugandans. It is run by co-founder and CEO, Dr. William Wasswa.

To date, Global Auto Systems has addressed many facets of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on society from the creation of a mobile and online application to order grocery delivery and encourage social distancing, to the provision of clear and accurate information for adults and schools to reduce fear through COVID-19 information management systems, and producing local personal protective equipment (PPE). These efforts have increased health awareness, expanded last-mile service delivery, and provided critical medical gear for citizens.

Dr. Wasswa comes from an impressive academic background (the youngest engineer to complete his doctorate at Mbarara University at 30 years old), and he has been energetically advancing solutions to industrial production levels of health resources while negotiating the restrictions of the pandemic. All the while, ensuring his company’s innovations are being locally designed and sourced to impact his community.

Dr. William Wasswa with a Global Auto Systems manufactured face shield.
Dr. William Wasswa with a Global Auto Systems manufactured face shield.

Even before addressing the pandemic, Global Auto Systems was keen to develop user-centred systems including those for hospital, school, and personal finance management and make them work in resource-constrained areas. Dr. Wasswa and his team continue to push in this domain even though it is not without its challenges, “ICT has the potential of improving service delivery in Africa; however, we observed that many ICT innovations have not been adopted in Uganda,” he says.

“ICT has the potential of improving service delivery in Africa; however, we observed that many ICT innovations have not been adopted in Uganda.”

Recently, the company took part in a digital hackathon organised by the World Health Organization (WHO), during which the team presented a COVID-19 information management platform which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to provide resource planning. The platform, dubbed NexGenCoviAI was selected in the top three innovations and was implemented at Mbarara (a city in the Western part of Uganda) regional referral hospital where it helps to quantify all available assets from human resources to PPE and drugs.

An important element that Dr. Wasswa and his team include is the input of the people using the system, “It is still being improved, and we are using an approach where end-users are a part of the system design,” he explains. “This has really helped us to create a platform that is fit for the environment where it will be deployed.”

Global Auto Systems website
Global Auto Systems website
Global Auto Systems website.

The NexGenCoviAI platform is also being tested with Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs), a type of machine learning that involves generating new information, patterns, models, and insights from known data sets, on chest x-ray images so that it can learn to spot a COVID-19 diagnosis. The dataset used for this came from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Medal for Innovations in Healthcare Technology, which has been collecting scans of COVID-19 patients since March. Global Auto Systems is also working closely with images from a local hospital to test its model. This work is still in development, but it could be an important step in the use of computer vision and AI for medical investigation.

The use of AI in COVID-19 research and solutions is providing hope in many countries. As a relatively new and evolving technological field, it is not a panacea and work can appear slow in comparison with the fast spread of the pandemic.

When Dr. Wasswa first heard about COVID-19, he was disheartened that answers were slow to come from this field but organised his thoughts around where practical solutions may lie. “I initially thought that with the increase of AI research in drug discovery that the vaccine would be discovered quickly from the well-established state of art laboratories in developed countries, however, I was wrong,” he says. “Later, I saw the increasing number of deaths occurring in developed countries; then fear arose in my heart of what would happen if the virus reached Africa with our ill-equipped health system. I developed a mathematical model to predict the deaths in Africa, and this was very scary!”

“I realized that what we needed was to be prepared to manage COVID-19 when it finally arrived. I knew that the best tool we have is science, technology, and innovation. As an innovator, together with my team, we put our efforts into infection prevention and control, risk communication and community engagement; and case management.”

Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world, with 77% under 25 years old and many of them highly qualified university graduates. Armed with laptops, this is a powerful group, but underemployment is a major challenge.

Although Uganda’s youth unemployment rate of 13.3% for 18–30s is comparable to statistics for Europe’s at 14.3% at the end of 2019, young Ugandans are likely to be overqualified and underemployed in work that does not offer an adequate income.

Internet penetration in the country is high, and so youth are well informed about emerging technologies and how they may be used. Still, Dr. Wasswa says that many lack the technical skills to commercialise their ideas. “They are in need of an enabling environment with a good ICT structure, streamlined innovation ecosystem framework, mentorship, and funds,” he says. “The tech scene in Uganda is still more in theory and on paper than in use, despite the availability of the human resource (youth) to change this.”

Global Auto Systems has identified startups across East Africa that are also working on the local production of PPE. The establishment of a strong network that can pool resources in its response to the pandemic is work that Dr. Wasswa pursues, but notes are not without its barriers. “One of the challenges we have in Africa is that many startups see other startups as competitors as opposed to working together,” he says. “We should be able to import together, share expertise, and produce in bulk.”

“Local production is the way to go.”

Dr. Wasswa is also a keen supporter of indigenous manufacturing solutions as they meet many more requirements for Uganda under the pressures of the pandemic. “Local production is the way to go,” he insists.”Personally, I am very grateful to the international organizations that have come out to support local production in Africa. It should have been a priority for the African governments to intensively support local production.”

At the moment, Global Auto Systems employs four people working on local production and is proud to create employment opportunities. The local knowledge that this brings to 3D print and technological skills means that the end products are more suitable for the market they hope to serve. “Local production promotes inclusive design based on user-centred principles,” Dr. Wasswa says. “We have been able to develop the 3D print model of the face masks based on a local population face size, so it removes the possibility of importing masks that don’t fit the intended users.”

Gas team members making face shields.

Making things locally means that the firm can produce instantly to meet demand, “This eliminates unequal distribution of resources, for example, having a thousand face masks not being used at a time when instead face shields are the ones required,” Dr. Wasswa explains. “With local production, you simply switch production.”

“Indeed,” he continues, “The pandemic has been an eye-opener to many countries that production is key to economic development. If all airports and borders are closed, then a lot cannot proceed without local production.”

Although innovation has been significant in finding ways to respond to the pandemic, Dr. Wasswa feels that local uptake could be improved. “I am very interested in seeing innovation from Africa having an impact on the lives of African people. It is from here that Africans will gain more trust in local production. However, there is a need for governments, policymakers, and regulatory authorities to prioritize innovation uptake across the continent by investing and putting frameworks in place to identify and recognize them. Departments like revenue authorities should subsidize the tax on items used for local production, especially for PPE to improve this situation.”

To continue working at this pace, Global Auto Systems needs both financial and non-financial support. The main areas it requires funds is ICT infrastructure, including a physical server and high processing computers. Physically the firm could also do with space to set up a production unit for PPE, and Dr. Wasswa hopes that this will expand to become a centre of excellence when it comes to the 3D printed production of PPE in East Africa.

Money is not everything, of course, and so Dr. Wasswa and his team is also looking for links to potential partners, business coaching, and invitations to submit future innovation. These links and support will help the business grow to discover even more solutions that respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and tackle other societal challenges.

Dr. Wasswa is confident that the innovations he has led can create wider change beyond local communities. “We are producing a variety of PPE that is useful to different groups of people and organisations including hospitals, churches, schools, refugee camps, and the general public,” he says.

Global Auto Systems is working to increase PPE access across Uganda by using local 3D printing methods, digital platforms, and local production so that the manufacturing and use of these items can benefit more people in different ways from protection to employment. The company’s mask production relies less on generating revenue from customers. It focuses more on empowering Ugandans to learn how to get into the manufacturing of 3D printed masks and shields for themselves through providing training and webinars.

Although Dr. Wasswa’s company is increasing its network of local manufacturing, boosting skills in Uganda, and identifying other opportunities for better systems design, he has a very simple concept that pushes the core of the business forward and will continue to do so as the pandemic prevails. “We are driven and inspired by impactful innovations,” he says. “In response to COVID-19, we have channelled our efforts into innovations that can improve livelihoods through the pandemic and will also help to save lives.”

COVIDaction

Building a Technology and Innovation Pipeline for the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVIDaction

COVIDaction, a partnership between UKAid, UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering and Global Disability Innovation Hub, alongside others, is building a tech and innovation pipeline to support action related to the COVID-19 pandemic across different thematic areas

Chime Asonye

Written by

Innovation Manager, FCDO COVIDaction; Executive Director, NaijaDC; Founder, Nigerian Mental Health. Working to amplify Africa everywhere I go.

COVIDaction

COVIDaction, a partnership between UKAid, UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering and Global Disability Innovation Hub, alongside others, is building a tech and innovation pipeline to support action related to the COVID-19 pandemic across different thematic areas