'Smart medicine dispenser’ wins Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation

A 31-year-old electrical engineer, Neo Hutiri, has won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2019 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation – the first South African to win the prestigious prize – for he and his team’s Pelebox smart locker system designed to dispense medicine to patients with chronic conditions.

Used at public healthcare facilities in South Africa, reportedly cutting down on long queues and easing pressure on the healthcare system, Pelebox is a simple wall of lockers, controlled by a digital system. Healthcare workers stock the lockers with prescription refills, log the medicine on the system, and secure each locker. Pelebox then sends patients a one-time PIN, which they use to open their locker and access their medicine.

Neo Hutiri won the first prize of £25,000, with four finalists from across sub-Saharan Africa delivering presentations at an awards ceremony in Kampala, Uganda, on 4 June, and the Africa Prize judges and a live audience voting for the most promising engineering innovation.

The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK, is described by the RAE as ‘Africa’s biggest prize dedicated to engineering innovation’. Now in its fifth year, it encourages talented sub-Saharan African engineers, from all disciplines, ‘to develop innovations that address crucial problems in their communities in a new and appropriate way’.

Pelebox gives patients access to their medicine within 36 seconds, in contrast to the average 3.5 hours it is typically said to take in other healthcare facilities. This is significant in South Africa, which has the world’s biggest antiretroviral therapy programme, with over 4.7 million patients collecting monthly treatments from public clinics.

 Mentoring received through the Africa Prize helped the Pelebox team to change its focus from product development to manufacturing, and to obtain a trademark for the brand.

Sixteen shortlisted Africa Prize entrants, from six countries in sub-Saharan Africa, received eight months’ training and mentoring to develop business plans and market their innovations. The group received coaching on communicating effectively, focusing on customers, and approaching investors with confidence.