She's using AI to wipe out malaria

25-year old Rokhaya has a big goal

Rokhaya Diagne on floor on computer

Rokhaya Diagne

In modern society, we often dramatize things. Headlines always read that the world is in a terrible place. Usually, it takes a lot of work to make cohesive arguments against that. AI is a buzzword in the news at the moment. You’ll read stories about AI destroying this job sector or causing issues with another facet of our lives. Those are real issues that we have to engage with.

But what if I told you that AI might wipe out one specific disease by 2030? A disease that has impacted 247,000+ people. A disease that killed 500,000+ in 2021. That’s right — If a start-up in Africa called Afyasense has its way - malaria will soon be eradicated. 

Rokhaya Diagne is a 25-year-old computer science major from Senegal. Like many in her generation- computers shaped her. Unlike many- she became obsessed. Not only did she want to use technology, she wanted to understand it. In her own words - those hours playing Call of Duty with her brother gave her problem-solving skills.

After starting a networking app to meet other people with similar interests - she focused her attention on healthcare. Her small start-up is called Afyasense (combining the Swahili word for health with the worse sense) to start using her interest in AI to combat one of the most deadly diseases in Africa. 

Rokhaya is no stranger to the healthcare system in Senegal. As a child, she had a range of illnesses that landed her in the hospital. She witnessed firsthand how inconsistent healthcare can be. So, after realizing her initial goal to study biology might not be for her - she took some time to reconsider what she wanted to do.

She decided to follow some advice her brother once gave her - to chase the complex tasks because you can stand out more - she chose bioinformatics. 

When you read about advancements in AI and healthcare - bioinformatics is the field of study that often drives this home. By training AI models to pick up on certain things - we can find illnesses faster than more contemporary methods. We already wrote about how AI can spot lung cancer

When Rokhaya heard about an effort to eradicate malaria, she knew that this was just the challenge for her!

Although she lives in the capital of Senegal - she understood just how ineffective some of the tests can be in rural areas. Her solution was simple and came in two parts.

  1. If AI was trained to read positive cases rapidly - doctors could act faster.

  2. Using 3D printing to manufacture microscopes, they could deploy even more resources to these remote areas. 

These efforts have not gone unnoticed. Not only did she and her team win an award at an AI conference in Ghana - they also won a national award from Senegal - with 8K in funding. This funding has pushed her closer to a finished product.

She hopes the same technology she works on to help eradicate malaria could also help find and treat cancer. This just shows you the type of ambition - not only in her but the industry itself. 

As we see these developments in technology - it is easy to get lost in the headlines. AI is being used to scam people. AI is putting people out of work. Those are factual statements.

It can be hard to understand the same technology responsible for getting college kids in trouble for plagiarizing essays is the same technology that might help eradicate one of the most deadly diseases in the world.

Join the conversation

or to participate.