When people think of emerging markets, it’s the BRICs that come to mind. But I believe that many African countries are poised to be the next set of big emerging markets. Africa is currently the world’s second-fastest growing region. About one-third of the continent’s 54 nations are experiencing annual GDP growth of more than 6%. And this growth is occurring beyond the continent’s urban settings. Projections show that sub-Saharan Africa will see more than 5% growth in 2013.

Additionally, the rate of return on foreign investment is higher in Africa than in any other developing region. And by 2040, the continent’s working age population will exceed that of both China and India, with over 1.1 billion people, facilitating a strong and growing labour pool. These changes will drive dynamic economic expansion.

However, there’s no mistaking that disadvantages will continue to persist throughout the continent. One of the biggest problems in Africa is inadequate healthcare. Today, life expectancy in Africa is 15 years less than the global average. Preventable and treatable diseases plague African populations. One in every 20 adults in sub-Saharan Africa lives with HIV – nine times the global average – and every 60 seconds, a child in Africa dies from malaria.

Africa’s rapid progress and urbanization are also creating new health challenges. Non-communicable diseases are projected to become the most common causes of death in Africa by 2030. For example, diabetes is expected to nearly double over the next two decades.

If left unaddressed, this dual disease burden (communicable and non-communicable diseases) could jeopardize the great economic opportunities Africa has in front of it. Healthcare will be critical in helping the continent realize its potential as the next set of emerging markets, and focus needs to be on three areas:

1.  Technology

In the last decade, Africa has gone from virtually no fixed-line telecoms infrastructure to a continent where one in six people now owns a mobile phone. And recently, we’ve found that applying everyday technologies like mobile phones can help improve quality of life for Africans – beyond offering a means of communication. For example, Citi is working with NGOs to use this pervasiveness of mobile phones to bring banking and payment services to Africans with little or no access to formal financial services. Mobile money and digital wallets accessed on mobile phones eliminate the need for physical cash in rural areas where banking infrastructure is limited and carrying large amounts of cash is risky. And in terms of addressing healthcare needs, Novartis is working with governments in five different African countries as well as private sector partners to deliver SMS for Life. This is a project where we use text messages and electronic mapping to help improve drug distribution and better monitor the supply of essential malaria medicines in rural areas. In the past, African patients would travel long distances to health clinics only to find the medicines they needed were out of stock, but this system enables quick redistribution of products so that pharmacies don’t run out of critical medicines.

 2.  Infrastructure

Infrastructure has played an important role in Africa’s recent upturn and will continue to contribute to further economic growth. Many companies are pitching in to help make health necessities readily available to those in the far corners of sub-Saharan Africa where resources are limited and infrastructure is minimal. For example, Coca-Cola is contributing its supply chain management expertise to improve distribution systems by mapping out health facilities and implementing stock-management software to bring bed nets, contraceptives, anti-AIDS drugs and vaccines to rural Africans quicker. And at Novartis, we are piloting new commercial models, called social ventures, to address infrastructure issues in sub-Saharan Africa. These models help increase access to medicines and supply them in smaller packages at prices that are affordable for the rising numbers of Africans who purchase healthcare out of pocket.

3.  Education

Education is one of the most powerful tools in helping to reduce poverty and inequality and for building sustainable economic growth in the developing world. But with limited resources behind education and a scarcity of teachers, many in rural Africa are left behind. Some international organizations are working across sectors to change this. For example, Cisco works with NGOs and other non-profits to promote more connected communities and economic growth by helping students in Africa and other emerging economies develop information and communications technology skills so they can improve their career prospects. Africa’s education deficit affects the population’s health as well. The continent is home to one-seventh of the world’s population with one-quarter of the global disease burden, but it only has 2% of the world’s doctors. This is concerning because many health issues stem from lack of disease awareness or basic hygiene knowledge. Novartis is partnering with the Earth Institute, the United Nations and a number of private sector actors to help train and deploy 1 million community health workers in sub-Saharan Africa by 2015 to deliver basic treatment and preventative care, as well as track disease outbreaks. This initiative is about local people serving each other and empowering communities to lift themselves out of poverty in a sustainable way.

Africa is showing signs of promise, but innovative solutions to improve the health of its people are critical to success. This will require more than philanthropy: it will need new commercial models that solve healthcare issues and benefit both the companies that invest and the population of Africa.

Author: Joseph Jimenez is chief executive officer of Novartis and is one of the Co-Chairs at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos 2014.

A woman prepares an injection in Sudan. REUTERS/Gonzales Farran