The time for the African telecoms involvement in mHealth is now!

Having come from the corporate sector and a recent member of the global health community, to me the mHealth sector resembled a Wild West scene these past few years. There were so many discussions and lots of pilots. I agree that the dust steadily settled and the road ahead of us became clearer. Obviously the mHealth community has a clear picture of ‘what’ kind of mHealth initiatives are great to implement now. Discussions seems to be focusing on scalability and sustainability, the 'how' and 'with whom' questions are now becoming very important.

It is great to see the newsflashes showing us that the mobile telecommunication giants in the developing parts of the world are getting heavily involved in the mHealth sector for commercial reasons. This is generally applauded by governments and donors alike. They want sustainability and the corporate sector can play such an important role in making this happen. Unfortunately, it’s here where things still become difficult in Africa. The ‘with whom’ is very clear but the ‘how’ question is still hampering our progress, especially when we desire equal partnerships for scalable and sustainable models. When we see the involvement of the private sector in mHealth programs, is it almost always via its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) departments. Understandably so, but times are changing!

Look at Tanzania. For the introduction of mHealth interventions we first had to ponder over the accessibility and availability of the networks. Although the network coverage may not be 100%, you will find coverage in the most remote areas of Tanzania. So we know that we can reach our target groups, which may be health workers, community health workers or just members of the general public, wishing to receive health information via their mobile phone. The healthcare sector realized the potential and organizations such as  MEDA,  CCBRT, and  D-tree International work with the sector by making use of mobile money and mobile vouchers to improve the delivery of their health services.

mHealth implementers now wanted to reach out to large communities in rural areas, scale up in a sustainable way. We are talking about targeting people whom have only become phone owners and mobile subscribers within the past ten years. It has taken the Tanzania telecom industry many years of price wars and the introduction of low-cost handsets to capture this large market. We also recognized that literacy rates and phone ownership percentages were a handicap in the rural areas. So we needed to find out if this ‘young’ market was able and willing to use the intended mHealth initiatives.  These were all important questions for us implementers, but definitely also for the corporate sector. We know that mobile telecommunications companies prefer to invest in those long term mHealth partnerships that offer a potential market and when it makes commercial sense. For that they need to be sure the mHealth channel offers a business opportunity.

As they say, ‘the proof is in the pudding’. Our mHealth pioneering days are about done in Tanzania!  Health information services such as  m4RH and our  Healthy Pregnancy, Healthy Baby Text Messaging Service (recently nominated for the best mobile health product or service award from GSMA), have proven this over the past few years. Yes, most mHealth initiatives are still supported by the commercial sector through their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) budgets. However, many African mHealth initiatives are now starting to connect with the desired large market sectors and are becoming commercially attractive for the corporate sector. Hence, services like the Healthy Pregnancy, Healthy Baby Text Messaging Service now have the opportunity to connect to the mobile industry and explore long term sustainable – commercially viable – options. 

It should not surprise you that the corporate sector partners are active participants of the Tanzania mHealth Community of Practice meetings, where NGOs, industry and the government come together to share information, identify challenges and achieve consensus on mutually beneficial solutions. The communication lines are open. Watch Tanzania, watch Africa. Now that we have the corporate sectors’ full attention, our mHealth industry is taking off.