A cellphone is no substitute for a midwife, African tech prodigy warns
13 January 2017
African governments are using technological advances as an excuse to continue neglecting systemic problems in health, education, energy and other basic services, a prominent entrepreneur has claimed.
“Over the past few years we’ve been talking a lot about leapfrogging health systems using mobile phones, but I am uncomfortable with the word because it implies that we can compromise local standards,” says Alain Nteff, founder of Gifted Mom, which gives pregnant women and new mothers potentially life-saving information.
Since the information platform launched in 2012 the young entrepreneur has been heralded as a saviour of Cameroon’s mothers and children, but he is very clear that a mobile phone can never replace a midwife. Nor should governments stop investing in energy infrastructure because people are using solar lanterns, or stop supporting teachers because children are learning with ebooks.
Cameroon has one of the highest mortality rates in the world with mothers dying for reasons that are common across sub-Saharan Africa: a lack of information about when they need to seek medical help; long distances they have to travel to hospital; and delays in seeking adequate care when they arrive.
Gifted Mom helps to bridge this gap by providing vital information via text or smartphone app to women in remote rural areas. Women who text the word “mom” get a call from the Gifted Mom team in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, to log their details. They can then ask advice about their health and receive text reminders to attended regular antenatal checkups.
Within two years of Gifted Mom’s launch, there was a 20% increase in women turning up for antenatal check ups across five rural areas across Cameroon. The app is funded by development grants and investments from mobile companies, meaning it’s free to use.
Staff in Gifted Mom’s office monitor a screen of inquires that come in from mothers across Cameroon. The latest is from a pregnant woman who thinks that she might have syphilis – a condition treatable with antibiotics but which, if left untreated, could cause her baby to be stillborn. She is told to seek medical care as quickly as possible.
However, Nteff says that while “what we can do with SMS is amazing”, Cameroon’s whole health system needs to be overhauled. So while the mother worried about syphilis now knows she should seek medical care, it could still take her days to reach a hospital, where the staff may be overstretched, jeopardising her chance of being treated.
Gifted Mom is planing to expand its maternity services in to Haiti, Kenya, Nigeria and Ivory Coast and says the platform could be used to share vaccine information across communities that may have mobile phones but no local health centre.
Nteff’s other problem with “leapfrogging systems” is that it suits governments to say they are investing in tech hubs to fix problems, from Kenya’s “Silicon Savannah” to Cameroon’s “Silicon Mountain”.