Brenda Katwesigye

Make the Solution Fit the Challenge: Tapping into mobile telephony’s potential to address long-standing problems in Africa

In the song “Every Day is Exactly the Same” by the American band Nine Inch Nails, the lead singer talks about his ability to “‘see the future.” In a sense, he can. The future is now. And the future is technology.

But this is not exactly obvious to rural and remote populations in Uganda.

Mobile telephony has grown and continues to grow exponentially in Africa. This is true. However, of more critical importance is the ability of mobile telephony to become a precursor for innovative solutions to long-standing community challenges. After all, technological development has not yet suddenly revolutionized health care or food supplies or shelter or education. Indeed, these social and community challenges remain prevalent in Uganda, and particularly in the rural areas in which the technology boom has not been very progressive.

An overused cliché states that “a nation’s most important resources are its people.” Nowhere is this more true than in a country of 37 million, where more than half of the population does not have access to sufficient health care information and services.

It begs several questions. What is the priority? Where did we go wrong? How can we use whatever resources are available to provide sustainable and affordable solutions to these challenges?

An overview

InstaHealth, an organization I co-founded, is a mobile application that enables anybody with a feature phone or a smartphone to access health information instantly.

It uses geo-location and an interactive voice response (IVR) system to instantly connect users to health centers, specialists and ambulances while also providing an instant first aid guide, doctor consultations and health awareness information. This service is built on very simple technologies that more than 40 percent of the country’s population can access.

It works in such a way that a person calls the designated number (currently 0417 774607 in Uganda), the system takes note of the person’s location and routes the call to the nearest health facility, doctor or ambulance. First aid guides and multimedia health content is sent to subscribers via SMS or can be accessed on the smartphone application, for users with smartphones. No Internet connectivity is required.

As much as this concept makes use of already existing technologies (IVR), it’s a first-of-its-kind in Uganda as it incorporates geo-location to ease tracking of the callers who subscribe. This is the only system in Uganda that gives the accurate location of the patient calling through the service, as well as the accurate location of the health center, doctor or ambulance. In addition, InstaHealth is the only application in Uganda with more than 1,000 health centers (with their details, contacts of doctors, counselors available, insurance and emergency services) mapped and accessible at the touch of a button.

What makes it even better is that there are language preferences that users can make as the IVR menu is translated into the local language, Luganda.

Calling through the system costs only about 17 cents (U.S.) per minute per user. We use a cost-revenue sharing model with the telecom operators.

Lessons learned

In the business of technology and mobile/web applications, it is imperative to focus on the product. After all, that is the core idea. The need for revenue generation will arise at a certain point, but it is entirely dependent on the product. It is also even more important to gear the product to focus on a particular social or community challenge. In short, the solution should be appropriate to the challenge.

It is also critical that an enthusiastic team is in place. The team does the bulk of the behind-the-scenes work and ensures that the product is delivered in a timely manner. InstaHealth has been a success primarily because of the effort of the team behind it.

InstaHealth is principally a health care access and information application. But the simplicity in its design is the gift. It means that the application can be tweaked to provide alternative, innovative solutions to other challenges such as housing, food security, education information, security information, financial services … the possibilities are endless.

The future

Health care access and information remain a perilous challenge in Uganda. But the zeal, enthusiasm and level of innovation to solve this is encouraging. This is particularly symbolic because the younger generation are taking charge of their future. Nowhere is this more important than in the health sector.

It is also encouraging that there is increased recognition from the private and public sectors of the contribution of technology and the youth in improving health care in Uganda. The future of health care in Uganda is therefore one for the young people to determine and design. After all, it is their life.

Brenda Katwesigye is a tech entrepreneur and co-founder of InstaHealth.

Health Care, Technology