Editor's Note: Rising Pyramid has published a series of posts focused on mobile solutions in South Africa by guest writer Josiah Filler, who recently sat down with Simon de Haan, Chief Engineer for the Praekelt Foundation. Cross-posted here with permission from Rising Pyramid, the following is the third part in that series of conversations. See Part 1 and Part 2 for more highlights of the organization's work in mobile apps to improve education around health care and other social issues.
The Praekelt Foundation is the non-profit arm of successful Johannesburg technology consulting company Praekelt Consulting. Founded by Endeavor-sponsored "high-impact entrepreneur" Gustav Praekelt, this non-profit organization is focused on using its for-profit expertise, especially mobile-based technology, to raise awareness about issues like AIDS, domestic violence, and good parenting for the bottom of the pyramid in South Africa and the broader African continent. In December 2010 the Praekelt Foundation received an $825,000 grant from Omidyar Network demonstrating that people around the world are starting to appreciate the tremendous social innovation this organization is pushing forward.
Josiah, Rising Pyramid: (What are some) of the innovative things you'd like to highlight?
Simon: We've done things with the "Please Call Me's". ... Everyone in South Africa gets five free "Please Call Me's" a day. It's a South African invention because people here didn't want to spend their airtime just to tell someone they had arrived or were out of airtime. So in the past they would beep them as in like ring and hang up. That's far more expensive than just sending a text message because they're plugging the network.
So, South Africa invented this "Please Call Me" system where they say, okay, you can send five free SMS's a day to ask someone to call you, which for the bottom of the pyramid is fantastic because they have a phone and they can reach out and have people call them even though they may not have airtime. There are millions of "Please Call Me's" being sent daily.
What we did as the foundation was to approach MTN, the mobile network operator, with the idea of using 5 percent of their "Please Call Me" inventory and to add HIV related advertising at the end of the message. We put in an HIV "call to action," like "are you HIV positive and are you scared to tell your relatives? Dial the national AIDS helpline XX-XXX-XXX." On day one when that started the calls that came in went up to 300 percent. We've also done a similar "Please Call Me" campaign for malaria on the MTN network involving an educative quiz.
Josiah, Rising Pyramid: That's incredible, any other cool solutions?
Simon: Sure, we're looking at a building a USSD mobile medical appointment reminder system for our "TxtAlert" project, where we work with clinics that distribute HIV or (Antiretroviral) ARV medicine. We get the patient data, like which day does what patient need to come in? Two weeks ahead of time we send the patient a reminder, the day before and the day after. Either we thank them for coming or we say "you missed your appointment, please dial this number or please text me to reschedule."
We're looking at building a USSD-based application where people can, without it costing anything, dial and see when their next appointment is or rebook if necessary. Because the clinics only give medicine based on a 30 days regimen they only have limited space where they can actually reschedule. The patient might say "okay, I want to come 10 days later" but then they're going to run out of medicine.
The USSD-based booking system will tell them "these are your available options; you're going to have to choose one of these." The core thing is that it works on every single phone. You don't need a smart phone. You don't need Internet access. You just need a normal GSM phone and we're looking at getting that reverse-billed as well so the end user doesn't pay anything for it.
Josiah, Rising Pyramid: Can you talk about the cell phone technology you've chosen to focus on here?
Simon: I mean we're trying to reach Africa so it's mobile and it's really low-end phones and a lot of what we do is USSD and SMS-based. We are building core infrastructure where we can actually deal with real African capacity where millions of people would respond to text messages from places like Kenya, Nigeria where it is really high mobile usage. It's creating systems that can deal with that capacity for other businesses, NGOs or non-profits who want to launch campaigns to launch on our platform and not have to deal with all that mobile operators stuff which can be tricky, certainly the further up in Africa you go.
Josiah, Rising Pyramid: What are your expansion plans?
Simon: We added offices in Lagos in Nairobi as of the past year and we are still looking at other places where we want to go here in Africa.
Josiah, Rising Pyramid: Thanks Simon, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me and discuss your work.