Sunday 22 April 2018

Health Digital Check-Up: Mobilizing South Africa

More Africans use mobile phones than any other continent and rates continue to climb. I just returned from my Edelman Escape to Cape Town, South Africa where I visited two organizations – mothers2mothers and Cell-Life – that run HIV/AIDs support programs throughout the continent with the help of mobile technology.

A recent article from The Economist quarterly magazine Intelligent Life, dubbed Nokia phones as the “AK-47s of communications” in Africa– a powerful term for a powerful medium. In South Africa, “behavior and interaction with the web is likely to broaden and deepen considerably,” due to mobile phones. Above all, SMS messaging via cell phones is an incredibly cheap channel that provides people with an affordable gateway to information and access to the rest of the world.

This kind of mobile access creates a major opportunity for health companies to work with the telecommunications industry to deliver, monitor and improve health care in the developing world. It also allows consumer product companies and education and civic organizations the opportunity to easily deliver information – and in turn, receive – from populations that are otherwise hard to reach. This goes beyond being a business opportunity but an opportunity for societal change. Not only can you build a market, you can improve the lives of the people within that market. The access to information will inevitably promote upward mobility and a more active consumer base down the line. By entering these markets now, companies can gradually build a loyal user base that will most likely remain customers as their disposable income increases and eventually derive profit from purposeful pursuits that also uplift a community or country.


Cell-Life, headquartered at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, primarily contracts with NGOs, clinics and government bodies to implement three core technologies – Intelligent Dispensing of Antiretroviral Treatment (iDart), Cellphones For HIV (C4H) and EMIT, a mobile and web-based data collection system – all using basic SMS messaging.

  • The iDart system was developed in collaboration with the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation to aid pharmacists and clinicians with the proper distribution of ARV drugs.
  • C4H uses various cell phone functions (SMS, GPS, USSD) to do the following: mass messaging for prevention, peer-to-peer supported counseling, linking patients and clinics, building organization’s capacity, mass information for positive living and monitoring and evaluation of programs.
  • EMIT, a mobile and web-based data collection system, helps groups easily carry out surveys, questionnaires and capture important information during HIV prevention and literacy sessions.

In December, they signed a contract with the Department of Health in South Africa to monitor their HIV testing campaign which will allow the country to reach their goal of testing an unprecedented 15 million people for HIV by June of this year. Cell-Life is charged with implementing the technology in all 7,080 facilities around the country. Companies such as Vodacom, MTN and Cell C provided the Department of Health with 15,000 cell phones to help with this program. The return on investment from a societal benefit perspective is huge. Every cell phone can aid an entire family, and eventually the larger community.


mothers2mothers (m2m), an organization headquartered in Cape Town, sets up mentoring and education programs throughout nine countries in Africa. The model is basic yet effective: HIV-positive women educating other HIV-positive women on how to live healthier lives while reducing the chance for mother to child transmission. At its core, m2m is about the personal relationships these women form, but technology enhances the impact the programs have on the communities. In January, m2m launched a partnership with Hewlett-Packard (client) to digitize their patient health records, significantly improving their monitoring and evaluation systems. Soon they will institute a mobile aspect in which some of the employees, “Site Coordinators,” will be able to collect and share data with other groups and headquarters, creating a constant connection to the larger support network.

Creating and Receiving News on Your Cell

Cell phones are also an important tool in the developed world and according to a new report from the Pew Internet American Life Project mobile devices are changing the way we are consuming news. Nearly half of all American adults get local news on their cell phones or tablet devices. As the article points out, the news is practical, real-time and primarily local. People will be attached to their mobile devices for the foreseeable future and the devices will continue to serve as a source of news. On the other hand, even the simplest form of communication on mobile devices, SMS messages, have become a way for people to push personal, political, and cultural news outwards. During the Egyptian uprisings, Internet access was shut down and telecommunications companies created a way for people to push out messages on Twitter and Facebook via SMS – the most basic form of citizen journalism that has a profound impact and is a pivotal force in some of the world’s most important events.

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