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How tech is connecting mothers with critical health services in Africa

14 Sep 2020Vodafone Foundation

Cecilia had been managing labour pains all morning. Her husband was away from their home in rural Tanzania, and it wasn’t until later in the evening that her brother-in-law was able to help take her to the nearest dispensary – a 30 minute trip on his bicycle.  

A nurse’s examination found Cecilia’s baby to be in a breech position, which meant she needed an emergency C-section in hospital to ensure its safe delivery.  

Getting there would not be easy. Ambulances in rural Tanzania are in high demand and in short supply. Public transport options are limited, and private taxis cost more than most families can afford.

This is a common challenge for pregnant and post-partum women living in rural, lower income areas around the world, where treatable conditions can quickly become fatal without medical assistance. In sub-Saharan Africa, women face a one in 37 lifetime risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth, compared with one in 6,500 for women in Europe. The levels of maternal deaths here are nearly 50 times those of high-income countries.

But for women like Cecilia, technology is providing a lifeline to essential treatment.

Vodafone Foundation’s m-mama programme uses mobile technology and Vodafone’s mobile money platform, M-Pesa, to connect pregnant women and new mothers in rural Tanzania to emergency transport, and empowers a network of local taxi drivers to act as ‘taxi ambulances’ in places where ambulances are rarely available.

The driver is identified through the m-mama mobile app and then paid electronically using M-Pesa, mobile money, at no cost to the women being transported.

Through m-mama, Cecilia was able to secure safe transport to the Shinyanga District Hospital for her operation. Her baby was safely delivered the following morning.

Improving maternal health is the top priority in the United Nation’s sustainable development goals for health and wellbeing. This includes a global target of reducing the mortality ratio to less than 70 deaths per 100,000 live births and ending preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age by 2030.

Digital technology will be crucial to achieving that goal and delivering wider sustainable development over the next decade. 

Vodafone Foundation’s m-mama programme has already seen a 27% reduction in maternal mortality in the areas of Tanzania where it operates. It’s been so successful that the Foundation is scaling the programme to Lesotho, through a new partnership with the Ministry of Health, Vodacom Lesotho and Touch Foundation. Over the next four years, the partnership aims to connect 8,500 women and new-borns to lifesaving care.

This expansion is part of a US$28m investment by the Foundation to scale m-mama from Tanzania to Lesotho and further sub-Saharan markets by 2025 – a commitment that builds on 10 years and US$24 million (€20.3 million) in philanthropic investment to support maternal health to date.

Providing digital support through early parenthood

Maternal health also needs to be supported beyond pregnancy and childbirth; but for new mothers in areas of sub-Saharan Africa, it can be difficult to access accurate and trustworthy health information to support with early parenthood.

While there are eight nurses for every 1,000 people in the UK for example, in South Africa there are just 1.2 per 1,000.

For Hlengiwe, mother to two-year-old Alwando in South Africa, it’s hard to know how to access support and which information to trust.

“You know sometimes being a first time mother, you feel that getting information from this person and that person, it becomes too much and you don’t even know what to believe anymore,” she says.

“It’s a challenge, and is also scary because you don’t even know whether what you’re doing is right, you know? You never know what is right and what is wrong.”

That’s where Vodacom’s SMS-based service Mum & Baby is making a difference. The service is currently available in five languages, and sends free health information via SMS to mothers, partners and caregivers to support with parenthood.

Mum & Baby subscribers receive personalised messages that are relevant to the specific parenting stage they need help with, whether that’s early pregnancy or caring for a five-year-old.

Vodacom users can also access a free mobile site which includes straightforward articles, videos and guides, as well as an immunisation calendar, due date calculator and pregnancy medicine checker. Users can also access educational material around related issues like nutrition, sexual health and more recently COVID-19.  

An independent study by KPMG commissioned by Vodafone, which evaluated the social impact of Mum & Baby, reported that 96% of subscribers thought the texts were helpful, while 98% said they’d taken action to care for themselves or their child as a result.

96% of those surveyed also said they were convinced to get their child immunised by the service – which if it was replicated across Mum & Baby subscribers could mean more than 650,000 children were vaccinated as a result.

Mum & Baby has already helped over 1.8 million parents and caregivers, like Hlengiwe, take positive actions to improve their children’s health.

“My hope for the future, I want to see myself as a successful mother,” says Hlengiwe. “I want to be the best mother and just be able to provide for my son”.

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