Interview with Moustapha Cissé

May 7, 2024
Health Education Interview Cards - 7

Moustapha Cissé

Founder and CEO of Kera Health Platforms, Senegal

With Africa's population expected to double in the next 25 years, it is impossible to train enough healthcare professionals to meet the continent's needs, says Moustapha Cissé, founder and CEO of Kera Health in Senegal. In an interview with IFC, he explains that expanding access requires doctors, pharmacists, insurance providers, and other stakeholders to use artificial intelligence (AI)-based tools to digitize and exchange patient information. Moustapha is already training the next generation of AI experts and establishing stringent data privacy protocols in line with European standards to set up Africa for a successful digital health transformation.

You recently launched Kera Health to build up artificial intelligence capabilities for healthcare in Africa. What sparked this decision?

The roots of Kera Health can be traced back 20 years. I was born and raised in Senegal, and in 2004, when I was 19, I became very sick, and my family and doctor thought I might die. I had been misdiagnosed, and what I was being treated for was slowly killing me. I was eventually correctly diagnosed and treated, and through a long process, I recovered. That was one of the most difficult experiences of my lifetime and left me deeply curious about how something like that could happen. I went to university and studied math, physics, and artificial intelligence. Still, I was curious about the health sector and knew there was an opportunity to leverage technology to solve some of Africa’s most pressing healthcare needs. 

What are the primary challenges in digitizing healthcare on the continent? 

One of the numbers organizations use to assess the quality of a health system is the ratio of doctors per 100,000 people. If you look at the United States or France for example, there are on average more than 200 doctors for every 100,000 people. In a country like Senegal, we have around 10 doctors for the same number of people. In rural parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers are even worse. One might think we need to train more health professionals faster. But we know that in Africa, the population will double in the next 25 years. What does this mean? It means there is no conventional way of improving the doctor-to-patient ratio. Using AI to digitize healthcare will allow us to reach more people, and what is so exciting is the technology is available today. 

Look at the banking sector 20 years ago: very few people in this country had a bank account. Now, everyone has a digital wallet. What happened in between is mobile money. Today, when I travel to the United States or Europe and I am asked to pay with a bank card, I laugh and say, “This is so yesterday.” If we can transfer money from one mobile device to another in such a short period of time, we can make the same leapfrogging in healthcare. 

The challenges are almost indistinguishable from the opportunities. For example, every hospital or healthcare infrastructure in Europe has a legacy system. You don’t start from scratch—you must make a new technology interoperable and backward compatible. However, we don’t have legacy systems to contend with in Africa. Here, we have to build for the present and the future. So, yes, it’s a challenge but also a wonderful opportunity. We are entrepreneurs, and we are Africans. We hustle. It’s just what we do. 

What is the connection between data and analytics and access to affordable healthcare and improved patient outcomes? Can you cite an example?

By leveraging data analytics, one can, for example, predict which patients are at risk of developing a specific condition, which allows for earlier interventions, and those earlier interventions lead to better health outcomes and are often less expensive. Data can also be used to better understand people diagnosed with certain conditions and intervene at the right time to keep them healthy. Healthcare providers can tailor treatment plans to individuals, moving us closer to precision medicine, which improves patient outcomes. 

Another example is telemedicine. Data analytics facilitate telemedicine, which provides people in remote areas access to healthcare. In this era of AI, we can also design health insurance policies for every individual and price them in a way that is accessible to everyone. 

AI works only with accurate data. How do you aggregate the data required to make AI workable in Africa?

Healthcare, more than any other industry, is a business of partnerships. We believe that bringing together the different stakeholders of the health ecosystem around a single platform allows them, in a compliant and privacy-preserving manner, to exchange information for the benefit of the patient; the whole is more than the sum of its parts. 

While building our platform, we spent hundreds of hours interviewing doctors, pharmacists, policymakers, and insurance companies, confirming that most of their work is done manually and in siloes. A doctor takes patient notes and writes prescriptions on paper. A patient provides the slip to the pharmacist who fills the prescription. No one is monitoring negative drug interactions or allergies. The patient is on their own at a potentially low point in their lives. 

We provide key stakeholders with the technological tools they need to do their jobs better, alleviate the difficulties that stem from their disconnectedness, and make exchanging information easier. 

Are there adequate human resources available to digitize healthcare in Africa?

I created the continent’s first master’s program in artificial intelligence. Graduates from the program have gone on to build amazing things, including solutions used by billions of people worldwide daily. We are fortunate that many graduates of the program have made their way back to Kera. I believe that technology and innovation cannot be detached from the environment in which it is built. If you tap into talent from the region to design and develop software to digitize healthcare, you increase your chances of building impactful solutions and companies here on the continent. So, yes, the people are here, and they appreciate that the innovations they create will eventually touch their families. We are committed to equipping the next generation with the skills to keep the mission going in the long term. 

Data privacy is a big concern when it comes to digitizing healthcare. How will Kera Health ensure that patient privacy is protected?

Privacy is at the center of everything we do. The regulatory framework for data protection is not in place in many African countries, so we look at standards that go beyond local laws and comply with the highest standards globally. Our platform was built to digitize healthcare for the African people, but we will eventually work with other parts of the world. So, we built the technology to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act in the United States and the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe. Healthcare is based on trust, and we run our business in a way that respects the laws and privacy of our citizens. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Published in May 2024

Moustapha Cissé is the founder and CEO of Kera Health Platforms, a company developing an AI-powered platform that connects the African health ecosystem and enhances stakeholders with machine intelligence. He is a scientist specializing in artificial intelligence, dedicated to creating intelligent systems to enhance the lives of everyone, beginning in Africa. Moustapha is also a professor of machine learning at the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences and the founder and director of the African Masters of Machine Intelligence (AMMI), the premier postgraduate program in AI in Africa. In 2018, Moustapha co-founded and led Google's first engineering site and AI research team in Africa. Previously, Moustapha was a research scientist at Facebook AI research, where he initiated projects to develop and evaluate safer axiological AI systems. Additionally, Moustapha advises governments, organizations, and startups on strategies and regulatory frameworks to ensure AI is used beneficially for society.

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