Fostering a Culture of Innovation in Malawi with Gerry Douglas

Aid, Evolved
Aid, Evolved
Fostering a Culture of Innovation in Malawi with Gerry Douglas

Gerry Douglas is known for many things: for founding Baobab Health Trust in Malawi, for his work as the Director of the Center for Health Informatics for the Underserved at the University of Pittsburgh, and most recently as the founder of the Global Health Informatics Institute (GHII) in Lilongwe, Malawi. Anyone working in digital health in Malawi has likely worked with Gerry, or with an organization he founded, or with a student he helped to train.

In this episode of Aid, Evolved, we uncover the little-known story of Gerry’s career before he went to Malawi or started Baobab. We talk through the early years of Baobab and the many technical and financial risks involved. And we hear what inspired Gerry to do it all again with the recent creation of GHII. Along the way, we discuss hardware prototyping using parts from eBay, the next generation of social enterprises Gerry hopes to launch, and the one thing Gerry would do differently if he had it all to do over again.

To find out more about Gerry’s latest work with GHII, visit

Show Notes

  • Baobab Health Trust is the organization Gerry founded in 2000 and ran until 2010. It is a social enterprise based in Lilongwe, Malawi with a mission to improve health in the developing world through building, deploying, and maintaining information technology. 
  • TED Blog: Fellows Friday with Gerry Douglas: Gerry has been a member of the inaugural group of Technology, Entertainment & Design (TED) Fellows since 2009. This blog post digs into greater detail about Gerry and Baobab’s work with medical records in Malawi.
  • Patient Registration via Touchscreen in Malawi: The first time I saw this video, I thought it had been digitally accelerated – but no, this is, in fact, real-time. This video demonstrates how efficiently patients are registered using the Baobab software and hardware at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe.
  • The Baobab Touchscreen Approach is documented in this paper from Health in Action. It describes the design, engineering, and deployment of the touchscreen electronic medical record system (EMR) built by Baobab.
  • Publications: Gerry has published more than 20 papers on the application of the principles of medical informatics in low-income country settings. A list of his publications is available on this site.
  • Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is a non-profit organization which Gerry credits for helping him make the career change into international development. Unlike the US Peace Corps, VSO is more targeted at mid-career professionals.
  • Charles Friedman was a mentor in the early years of Gerry’s PhD program. Charles, or ‘Chuck’ as his friends call him, came up with this simple inequality to describe medical informatics: Doctor + Computer > Doctor Alone.
  • The Invisible Computer by Donald Norman: This book from Donald Norman, one of the seminal figures in usability and user-centered design, introduces the idea that a computer which is truly meeting the needs of its users with ease and convenience should be largely invisible. Gerry drew inspiration from this book in developing Baobab’s technology design approach.
  • The Clinical Workstation by Charles Safran: At one point, Gerry refers to the idea of the “clinical workstation, a dedicated computer to support the clinical care process. This concept was introduced by Charles Safran, Chief of the Division of Clinical Informatics at Harvard Medical School.
  • The Design-Reality Gap by Richard Heeks: Gerry cites this work from the University of Manchester professor Richard Heeks as a useful model for donors, with which to conduct due diligence on proposals and to understand which ones have a feasible chance of success.
  • Geek Heresy by Kentaro Toyama Written by the founder of Microsoft’s Technology for Emerging Markets Research Group, Geek Heresy is a book that warns against the cult of technology and the risk it poses to social change. This is part of Gerry’s recommended reading list. 
  • The Wright Brothers by David McCullough is a book Gerry cites as an excellent example of innovation, because of its historical account of the many attempts and failures it took before the Wright Brothers flew the world’s first airplane. This is also part of Gerry’s recommended reading list.