EllemJohnsonSirleafWhen you think of Africa, what words come to mind? Most likely they are words of challenge, disease, poverty and conflict. It is less likely that you think "innovation." Yet it is innovation—by Africa and for Africa—that is helping empower us to tackle some of the continent's most stubborn and difficult challenges.

To start with the obvious, there are the two of us. We are elected Heads of State, but also women and mothers (now grandmothers). And, as Africa's first female Presidents, we are determined to improve the lives of women and children. Without addressing these needs we cannot achieve our broader goals of prosperity, equality, education or the level of environmental sustainability that will unlock Africa's full potential.

Consider malaria. The scope of the challenge is staggering. The mosquito-borne disease killed 655,000 people in 2010, most of them children under five and pregnant women in Africa. As many as a third of all Malawians suffer from malaria every year, while a recent health facility survey in Liberia shows that 33 percent of inpatient deaths are caused by this disease. So the problem hits close to home.

The good news here is that significant progress is being made. Over the past decade, we have achieved a 33 percent reduction in malaria deaths in Africa, thanks to expanded access to proven tools like mosquito nets and the advent of new ones such as reliable rapid diagnostic tests and inexpensive, effective drugs that help us identify and treat malaria before it becomes life-threatening.

To continue our progress, we need to keep innovating. We are now on the verge of developing a malaria vaccine, the first against a parasite, that can turn the tide against this ancient plague. But we must also outpace the twin threats of drug and insecticide resistance or we risk losing the effective tools we have now.

Innovation was on display last week at the African Union Summit where the 43 members of the African Leaders Malaria Alliance (ALMA) logged into a new iPad application to track, share and compare our countries' progress toward ending malaria deaths and other leading causes of maternal and child mortality.

Importantly, the ALMA Scorecard for Accountability and Action (available online and on the iPad app) is an emergent model for progress and promise. It already tracks maternal and child health, including vaccinations among children under two years old, the percentage of pregnant HIV-positive woman receiving anti-retroviral medications and the percent of deliveries assisted by a skilled birth attendant.

Another highlight from the scorecard is the inclusion of new data monitoring progress towards the Abuja target of 15 percent national public sector financing for health. New data shows that in difficult global economic times, 14 countries in Africa have responded by increasing their domestic contribution to health by more than two percent.  However, more needs to be done, as only Botswana, Rwanda, Togo and Zambia have achieved or exceeded the Abuja target.

Together with the United Against Malaria campaign and the Confederation of African Football, we announced a partnership to reach hundreds of millions of African sports fans with reminders to sleep under their insecticide-treated mosquito nets. We did this in collaboration with the continent's most watched sporting event, the African Cup of Nations football tournament.

In the private sector, innovation and concrete returns are rewarded with further investment. The same ought to be true for public health, yet, despite all the progress we've seen, our greatest challenge is that we may not have the funding to follow through on this emerging success story.

Led by countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, and institutions such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the World Bank, the world has invested generously in malaria control. But to achieve universal access to life-saving tools and continue the drive toward eliminating malaria deaths, we need an additional $3.2 billion in funding over the next three years.

A share of these resources will come from Africa. We can't ask the world to invest in Africa's health if we won't make the same investment ourselves, but we will need the world's help.

Fortunately, there's good reason to think this investment will pay off. A recent study issued by ALMA and the United Nations Special Envoy for Malaria found that every dollar invested in malaria control in Africa generates, on average, $40 in GDP on the continent. And scaling up to universal coverage of prevention, diagnosis and treatment of malaria by 2015 will prevent 640 million cases and avert 3 million malaria-related deaths.

Where else can you get that return? It's an investment opportunity we cannot afford to miss. We are determined to improve the lives of women and children across Africa, and we will not let malaria stand in our way. GHD