After missing lectures due to malaria, a Ugandan engineer came up with a low-cost device to speed up diagnosis of one of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest killers  Brian Gitta (left) and Shafik Sekitto of the Matibabu team, with their device for diagnosing malaria. Photograph: James Oatway/Royal Academy for Engineering

Malaria is the leading cause of death in Uganda. Children and pregnant women are most vulnerable, but the blood tests that help diagnose it are invasive, expensive and time consuming. It means that half of all malaria deaths continue to be in children aged under five.Software engineer Brian Gitta, 25, became determined to turn this statistic on its head after malaria forced him to miss lectures at university. Along with six student friends – all of whom have been infected several times with malaria – he developed a low-cost, reusable device that can test for the disease quickly and accurately, without drawing blood. Matibabu – “medical centre” in Swahili – clips on to the patient’s finger and shines a red beam of light on to the skin, detecting changes in the shape, colour and concentration of red blood cells, all of which are affected by malaria.

“When a person is infected with malaria, they have parasites in their blood that breathe, feed and produce waste – one of which is magnetic,” explains Shafik Sekitto, 24, Matibabu’s business analyst. “The magnet in the device picks up on the magnet in this person’s blood and beams the results back to a computer or smartphone.”

The device is aimed at better detecting malaria not just in Uganda, but across sub-Saharan Africa, where 90% of the 400,000 global deaths caused by malaria each year occur.

Matibabu has an 80% success rate, although Gitta and his team have found that patients are wary of a test that claims to detect malaria but doesn’t draw blood, and isn’t carried out by a doctor.

“Because Matibabu can be used by individuals, or health centres, a doctor does not need to be there to run the test,” says Gitta, “so this is asking a behaviour change of the patient. A doctor’s presence is really vital for market penetration, so now we are working with doctors to roll out the device.”

Gitta and the team aim to offer Matibabu as an initial screening at surgeries in Uganda, so that malaria can be ruled out as a potential infection in patients. Matibabu needs only two minutes to diagnose malaria, compared with 30 minutes or more for a blood test, which then has to be sent to a lab.

The innovation has been met with great interest, both at home and abroad. In 2013, the team won the UN Women’s Empowerment award after competing in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, which injected $12,000 (£8,970) into research and development.

It has also been shortlisted for the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa prize for engineering innovation, which has a prize of £25,000. If the team wins, Gitta says, the money will help Matibabu run clinical trials and improve the accuracy of its sensors.

The publicity has helped them run crowdfunding campaigns, and they have come to realise just how essential the device could be.

“All of us have had malaria at least a couple of times,” says Gitta. “It’s a common disease and it happens when there’s a shift in the weather. In the beginning with Matibabu, we were just thinking, how can we address this threat and offer a quick diagnosis?

“It went from being a very abstract idea to a device that the UN said could really help children under five and pregnant women. That’s when we realised the project had a lot of potential.”