Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among African women, with a five-year survival rate of only 40%. As a survivor herself, Nabuuma Kaliisa founded Chil AI to fight back with artificial intelligence-guided e-oncology services and drone-powered transportation of cervical cancer specimens from remote rural villages to laboratories. Chil’s chatbot has also helped serve communities in Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the pandemic.
In this exclusive interview with Business Insider Africa (BI Africa), Shamim, one of the African entrepreneurs among the Bloomberg New Economy Catalyst talked about how she is using drones and mobile technology to transport patient samples to the hospital for testing.
Reasons behind the company name, any story behind it?
Immediately after surviving breast cancer in my second year of medical school, I decided that I wasn’t going to allow other young women to pass through the pain of living with breast cancer simply because they can’t have early and regular screening. This led me to register a company called Community Dental and Reproductive Health Ltd. We offered mobile cancer screening to women in rural Uganda and mobile dental services to school children in Uganda.
Few months after we opened, the number of customers increased so much that we wanted to add new technologies (AI guided Tele-Oncology). This came with wanting to change the company name from Community Dental and Reproductive Health to “Community Healthcare AI Center”.
As a young entrepreneur, I have some people I occasionally seek advice from on things that are really important to me. One day, I told one of them about the whole mission of adding AI technology and change of company name. Sadly, this person moved against me and reserved the name I wanted to change to, so by the time I went to change the name, I found out “Community Healthcare AI Center” was already taken. Out of disappointment, I came up with something that brings out Communalism & AI hence the name ‘CHIL AI LAB”, with CHIL meaning “Community Healthcare Innovation Lab.”
Tell us briefly about your journey?
I grew up from a poor, rural background in Uganda, and the main economic activity in our village was fish farming. Every day, my father and brothers would go to the nearby lake to catch fish they would take to the market to sell. However, not all the fishes could be sold, and it was the role of the girls to smoke the remaining fish as means of preservation for it to be sold the next day. This exposed us to daily smoke for 13 Years, and in the end, all of us suffered from respiratory diseases, which contributed to my cancer chances. While at University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in medicine, I got breast pains only to check I had breast cancer in addition to Tuberculosis. The pain I passed through as I got treatment was unbearable. This left a permanent mark on my heart since one of my breasts was cut off as a means of treatment. This pushed me to come up with means to avail services to those living in rural Uganda then. What started as a Uganda focused healthcare centre has ended up being an African focused company as we currently serve more than 700,000 women from over 10 countries.
How is your company using AI? Tell us about the specialisations where it is being used and the problems that you are solving?
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death of the human race, and in 2019 alone, more than 9.6 million people died of cancer globally. Unfortunately, more than 70% of these deaths occurred in developing countries. Due to several barriers that range from financial, distance and information, many people in the developing countries never have access to early and regular cancer screening services, and by the time they screen, the cancers are already in advanced stages, with the most affected being the women and the disabled. With new technological advancements, our services range from AI guided consultation, Automated Referral, Automated Radiology Reports, Interpretation laboratory, Automated Drug Ordering, etc. All these can be accessed through our conversational chatbot accessible on various mediums.
We are aware that the disabled have been left out so many times when it comes to access to Tele-Health. In this regard, our chatbot allows those with seeing and writing disabilities to have access and navigate our services using voice prompts. This is only done by us in Africa.
Explain to us a typical day in the office; how does an AI expert spend their day? Tell us some under the hood details.
My day starts at 4:30 am when I wake up and prepare to join my home office to respond to all the emails from the previous day. This takes me around 1 hour, and at 5:50 am, I have a call with my secretary, driver and head of my security to plan for the day. This takes us 30 minutes, and at 7:45 am, I leave home to my first office, where I check all that is taking place and attend meetings of the day before leaving for my second office. I usually get there by 2 pm and do all the tasks at hand till 6 pm, after which I leave and then go home.
Tell us the challenges you have faced and are facing in the development/implementation of AI?
As any other female entrepreneur in Africa, the lack of funding is the major challenge I faced and still face. This limited my scalability rate with the services in the various communities, as I had limited funding to supplement the revenue I get from selling these services.
I was among the first people on the continent to bring AI in offering Tele-Oncology services. This came with too much opposition from the senior oncologists, who saw it as an enemy rather than enhancing their work. It’s unfortunate that we still have many people who believe that women, especially in Africa, can’t do anything related to technology.
How reliable are these AI tools from a clinical perspective? Tell us about the regulatory approvals; which stage are you in currently?
Unlike many medical professionals who see AI as an enemy, I see AI as the future of healthcare. They are less prone to error, and they have a high level of privacy than humans. The only challenge with these innovations is that they require many clearances from regulators, which has cost us a lot of money and time to get.
How do you think disruptive technologies impact today’s innovation, and what prospects do you see for AI in healthtech?
When we were studying in school, some things were seen and considered as fiction. For example, a robot carrying out a surgical procedure was only seen in movies. Today, robots do surgery while some even prescribe medicine. In the end, we are left with less work as human doctors.
When I was battling cancer, one needed to wait for a specialist to interpret the breast scans; however, with our chatbot, you only upload the photo of the scan and interpretation is made there and then.
You are part of the Bloomberg New Economy Catalysts. What will be your main message as a representative from the healthtech industry?
When the internet came about, many thought the internet couldn’t be influential as it is now. In the same way, the health care industry, especially in developing countries, has been left behind for a long time, and the truth is we need to learn how to be friends with the technology applications rather than seeing the innovations as enemies to our jobs.
Many startups have to go through some pivots along the way and made changes from their original business plan. Can you tell us about an idea you had for Chil AI Lab that has morphed into something else that ended up even better than the original idea?
We were only offering mobile clinic service to women in Uganda but later learned that we would have a much better impact and reach more countries across Africa if we used AI technology.