ZzappMalaria: Meet the Team That Is Using AI to Eradicate Malaria
Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 winners have been officially announced, we are excited for you to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is an annual competition that awards cash prizes to early-stage tech entrepreneurs solving the world’s toughest problems. Now in its fifth year, the competition awarded its largest prize pool ever, $1 million USD, to 20 winning teams from around the world.
We will start with Yonatan Fialkoff, Director of Strategy, and Michael Ben Aharon, VP of Partnerships and Growth, part of the team at ZzappMalaria, who won the Grand Prize of $250,000 USD. Headquartered in Tel Aviv, Israel, they developed an artificial intelligence-based system to plan, execute, and monitor large-scale, cost-effective malaria elimination campaigns. We recently sat down with them to learn more about their story, motivation, and innovative concept:
What problem is your technology solution trying to solve?
Yonatan: Malaria is one of the world’s biggest solvable problems. Two hundred million people get malaria annually, and more than 400,000 people die from it. Many countries eliminated it decades ago via massive treatments of stagnant water bodies. However, similar attempts in Sub-Saharan Africa have generally failed to detect and treat a sufficient percentage of often small water bodies.
Michael: Malaria affects not only the health of people, but also their wealth and prosperity. People miss school days and workdays, and some figures show an estimated $12 billion USD loss in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Africa as a result of malaria. So, it is a massive problem in terms of the economic development of Africa.
Yonatan: It’s a vicious cycle because the poorest countries have malaria, but they can’t afford to take care of it. This is where our system fits in, because it is a combination of being very inexpensive and very effective. We know that the problem of malaria is solvable because, in the developed world, we don’t even remember malaria being a problem. Mathematical models show that, yes, it is possible to eradicate malaria. But the problem in Africa, besides the tropical climate and infrastructures, is the cost.
Can you explain how the solution works?
Michael: The reason Israel, where we live, got rid of malaria is that there are about six months with no rain. So, if you find all the water sources during that period and treat all the mosquitos, you’re done. You need to find 90 percent of water sources and treat them for malaria to be eradicated. If it is lower than 90 percent, you can’t eliminate malaria. In a tropical environment, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s tough to find and treat 90 percent of water sources.
We believe that technology can bridge that gap. ZzappMalaria has a system that predicts where water sources will occur, carefully recommends interventions for those water sources, and monitors how they’re being treated. The last point is important because you need to treat each water source once every week or two. You can miss a few, but it’s not going to work if you miss more than 10 percent. Technology allows us to ensure we get the precision that we need, and with accuracy and performance, we can get rid of malaria.
Yonatan: It’s about finding the water bodies, documenting them, and keeping the data fresh and in real time instead of being written manually and kept in a folder. Another remarkable aspect is that it only requires you to use a smartphone. You snap a picture, and that’s it. So far, we have worked in Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia. The graphics are really clear, and we’re trying to make it as user-friendly as possible. Training for field workers takes only a day.
Before our system locates the water bodies, it locates houses via satellite images and decides the area to be treated. We cannot use satellites to find the existing water sources because they can be small. But by using AI, we can understand the areas at greater risk and where those water bodies are located. Field workers use the app, and the app has a map that tracks where you’ve been. You can see it, a manager can see it, we can see it, so you know how much work you’ve done and what you have left to do.
Michael: ZzappMalaria has a cool feature that is machine learning enabled. Houses are located in areas that make it more likely for water sources to be found, and the system takes that into account. The more our system is used, the better it identifies areas that need to be treated.
We are relying primarily on mosquito larvae sightings and treating the water bodies. There are other methods, like house spraying and indoor residual spraying, where you kill mosquitos directly. Our mathematical model shows that killing the larvae is the best way to prevent the spread. Traditional methods of killing mosquitoes are less environmental-friendly because the mosquitoes are developing resistance to the chemicals. You are in a constant battle to find new insecticides while the larvae have no resistance. Ours is a much healthier, environmentally friendly, and safe way to do it.
What inspired you to develop this solution?
Yonatan: Arnon Houri-Yafin founded ZzappMalaria in 2016. At the time, he was leading a Research and Development team at Sight Diagnostics, and as part of his job, he spent three months in hospitals in India experimenting with Sight’s malaria test. After being exposed to children who were sick and dying from malaria, he decided he wanted to do something. Initially, he was thinking more of a public-health campaign, but eventually, he focused on making a difference through technology.
Community engagement is still critical when it comes to eradicating this disease. People are essential, mainly because this is a solution that anyone can use. A three-year-old could find a puddle, sometimes just as well or maybe even better than an adult. We want to integrate a feature so that anyone with a smartphone can take a picture and send us the location of a water body, and give people the ability to take care of their communities.
How will winning a prize in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge help you advance your business?
Michael: ZzappMalaria’s solution has been working in several countries, protecting more than 500,000 people, and we are now launching a campaign in São Tomé and Príncipe islands in the Gulf of Guinea to fully eliminate the disease. If successful, this will be an unprecedented achievement in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In the next few years, we are also planning to launch more pilots on the continent to showcase to governments that this is possible because until now, the conversation was more about harm reduction. Instead, we’re saying let’s end malaria.
Do you know what you will use the prize money for specifically?
Michael: We will use it towards the São Tomé operations. Right now, we are working in three districts, and we want to expand ZzappMalaria’s operations. The money will be going directly to the field to help save lives.
How has the global pandemic impacted your work?
Yonatan: When it comes to malaria and Covid-19, the symptoms can be similar. So, people may think they have Covid if they get a fever and don’t get treated for what is actually a malaria infection. Or, they think they have malaria, and they actually have Covid. The health systems in those regions are already burdened, as well as the supply chain. Unfortunately, there was an increase in malaria cases in 2020, so it’s all the more urgent to continue and increase the fight against malaria.
It did make our work more difficult. It forced us to push this forward and improve ourselves. It is one thing to do training onsite and another to do it remotely. We’re happy to say that it works, and we’ve been able to do operations with less training onsite and still be successful.
Why did you decide to start your own social enterprise versus going to work for a company?
Michael: I’ve been an entrepreneur for the past decade, and this is not my first business. I love this because, honestly, this is the best way to make the most impact at the end of the day. I come from the development side of things – my training is in international relations, and I have worked as a consultant for the United Nations and World Bank. There are issues that governments are not equipped to solve that require innovation, and this is where the private sector comes in with more efficient solutions.
Yonatan: We have a very far-fetched dream here, but it is not an all or nothing. We’re working in the field now, and we’re saving lives now. It is not something that may or may not happen in the future; it is happening right now. I find that very satisfying and motivating.
What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs?
Yonatan: An imaginative and transformative solution is appealing, but combine that with something practical with benefits that you can see while still working toward the transformative goal. Dreaming big but knowing that all the small steps are getting you closer to that final destination is essential. Try to adopt that attitude.
Michael: And don’t forget to apply to the next Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge!