Social Innovation: Mobile Phones Helping to Fight Stillbirths in Africa

Through social innovation, the text message is now a message of hope to women in Africa who suffer from fistula, one of the biggest challenges facing maternal health in this region. It affects more than 2.5 million young women and is a debilitating condition that causes millions of stillbirths across this continent. Thankfully, it could be eradicated in Tanzania in just four years. Almost 3,000 Tanzanian women annually suffer obstetric fistula during lengthy or obstructed labour. In almost 95% of cases the baby dies. These women are then often stigmatised by their families, who say it is 'witchcraft' and throw the women out of their homes because they do not understand the condition. These women are then ignored within society. There are some women in their 70s and 80s who have lived with the condition for more than 40 or 50 years. Obstetric fistula is rare in the western world, where women have access to hospitals and midwives.

Women with this condition do not realise it is a recognised medical condition that can be put right with a simple $385 (£250) operation. The Tanzanian government, the European Union and charities have invested heavily into fighting fistula, yet the number of cases is still increasing each year. Some of the reasons are women are not aware that they can be cured and crucially can't afford the bus fare to hospital to get treatment. It is this travel cost problem that was noticed by Vodacom, the country's biggest mobile phone network. Last year it started to make a difference by using its mobile phone money transfer social innovation service, M-Pesa to text-message the bus fare to women who are affected.

Vodacom in partnership with the Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania has appointed a team of 60 ‘ambassadors’ to travel around the country diagnosing women with the condition. Within an hour of an ambassador finding a patient a date is set for surgery and money for transport is texted to the ambassador, who takes the patient to the bus stop. The ambassador then receives $3 when the woman presents herself for surgery, to ensure that the money is not misused. Vittorio Colao, Vodafone's CEO has made this work one of the key projects for the company's Foundation and has committed $12m (£7.7m) to this social innovation programme in an effort to clear Tanzania's backlog of 24,000 obstetric fistula cases by 2015.

Dr Elizabeth Mason, director of the World Health Organisation’s maternal, newborn, child and adolescents health unit, says, “Vodafone’s plan was a very welcome initiative that will support women who are ostracised when they have this terrible condition”. Social innovation is turning mobiles in Africa into powerful instruments that are helping to fight against a host of diseases, including HIV/Aids, malaria and polio. Importantly, it will be making a difference to lives of these women who suffer in silence.

Photo Credit: whiteafrican

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