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It’s time for Africa’s maternal mortality battle to go digital
It is wholly unacceptable that a mother in sub-Saharan Africa is over 100 times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than a woman in Western Europe in an age when having a mobile phone and access to the internet alone can greatly enhance their life chances.
That my region accounts for around two-thirds of the world’s maternal deaths is not just a moral outrage, it is an anchor on our economies. In the majority of low income countries, reducing maternal and infant mortality will impact GDP and reducing child mortality by 1% could also increase GDP by as much as 4.6% in African countries.
There is of course no single fix for this complex issue, but as an engineer I believe in the power of technology to effect positive change. Mobile devices – our primary access to the internet in Africa – provide a platform for access to health information and services that can deliver change at scale where medical and education infrastructure and resources are often limited.
So it frustrates me that women and girls in sub-Saharan African are still 13% less likely to own a phone and 37% less likely to access the internet on mobile, depriving millions of better sexual health information and medical care.
Good maternal health must begin with access to independent and accurate reproduction and health awareness education to reduce the 10 million unintended pregnancies each year among girls aged 15–19 years in the developing world.
Services like the Big Sis chatbot on Girl Effect’s Springster mobile platform, provides information to young women who might not otherwise be allowed to discuss sexual health and contraception, or be shamed for their curiosity.
Beyond the facts of life, mobile is an efficient channel to empower women with nutritional knowledge.
This would help address the issue that nearly half of pregnant women in Africa are anaemic and that there is unacceptably high, and rising, impaired growth and development for under 5s in Africa.
Vodafone’s experience in South Africa with ‘Mum & Baby’, a simple SMS-based health information service with nearly two million users, is that when mothers are presented with factual information, over 95% take action to improve the well-being of their children, from getting vaccinations to deciding to breastfeed.
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Pregnancy and postpartum healthcare is also impacted by the nine-fold fewer nurses and midwives in Sub-Saharan Africa compared to Europe.
Again, mobile platforms can bridge this gap by enabling health workers to more efficiently track pregnancies, spot danger signs, and ensure that women can access emergency obstetric care if complications occur, as UNICEF does with ‘Rapid SMS’ in Rwanda for example.
Giving birth can be a terrifying lottery for women living in rural Africa where there are fewer ambulances and hospitals in close proximity. Vodafone Foundation’s m-mama ‘ambulance taxi’ service has successfully used mobile technology and mobile money to integrate trained taxi drivers to support ambulance services, improving regional maternal mortality rates by 27% in Tanzania.
Private enterprises like Vodafone can play an important role funding, initiating and evaluating pilot health programmes. However, Africa needs more partnerships between governments, international organisations and the private sector to build, scale and sustainably finance digital innovations.
It is also important to recognise that the biggest brake on scaling e-health programmes is accessibility. Mobile operators alone cannot invest the estimated US$109 billion needed to achieve the United Nation’s goal of good quality and affordable internet access across Africa by 2030.
More development investment in reducing maternal mortality rates will generate significant social and economic benefits for sub-Saharan Africa. To do that the first priority should be closing the mobile gender gap and creating digital platforms to create new generations of informed, empowered and healthier African women and children.