On my visit to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 2003, almost every person I saw had a mobile phone, but most were texting, not making voice calls. Amazed by the number of messages being exchanged, I wondered if this ready-made network would allow us to send personalized, life-saving messages quickly and inexpensively, on a scale previously unimagined.
In South Africa, mobile phone penetration is at 95% with Internet penetration at a mere 10%. More people use their phones than listen to the radio or watch TV. For most people in the country, searching online for information on health, education or HIV treatment is just not a viable option, but mobile phones offer an effective way to provide valuable and life-saving information to people on a large scale.
When South African mobile users run out of airtime, they cannot make outgoing calls, but can still send a free "Please Call Me" text message to any mobile phone number in the country. Almost forty million of these messages are sent daily. MTN, a leading African mobile network operator, and Praekelt Foundation partnered to add a short message about HIV to its "Please Call Me" messages, and the results were astonishing: 1.5 billion messages were sent out in six languages, resulting in 1.5 million calls to the National HIV hotline. Next, we launched YoungAfricaLive (YAL), a mobile phone based community portal where young Africans can engage with experts and each other to discuss issues around love, relationships and HIV/AIDS. In 2.5 years, over 970,000 young people have visited to seek information and support from peers and counsellors.
Expanding on our previous success in HIV messages, we are now working with the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), a partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development, Johnson & Johnson, the United Nations Foundation, mHealth Alliance and BabyCenter. In South Africa, despite very high antenatal care attendance and widespread use of skilled birth attendants, the number of maternal deaths has increased fourfold since 1998 and the number of under-5 deaths has almost doubled.
In collaboration with Cell-Life and Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, Praekelt Foundation will launch MAMA South Africa -- a mobile phone based community that allows mothers to access vital health information on their mobile phones in a way that is personal and discreet. The MAMA program will also offer weekly SMS messages and interactive quizzes. The content has been developed by local South African experts and BabyCenter, and is designed to directly address the unique challenges that South African mothers face, including, but not limited to HIV.
New and expectant moms have never had a greater need for caring, accurate and straightforward information, but many feel afraid to reach out to friends and family. Many South African mothers-to-be only learn that they are HIV positive during pregnancy, and approximately 40% of maternal deaths are related to HIV/AIDS. Coping with the diagnosis of a life threatening disease while adjusting to the demands of pregnancy and a new baby is overwhelming and isolating.
The first public demonstration of MAMA will take place in May 2012 at the Mobile Health Summit in Cape Town, South Africa. I hope and believe that MAMA will help to make motherhood in South Africa a little easier and safer for all our moms.
Follow Gustav Praekelt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@PraekeltFound