Award-winning, Nigeria-based journalist Paul Adepoju says effective digital health solutions in Africa have two things in common: simplicity and specificity.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the current state of maternal mortality is ‘unacceptably high’. Around the world, about 800 women die daily from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. To a large extent, the global health regulatory body said the high number of infant and maternal deaths in Africa is a result of inadequate access to healthcare services.

Even though various stakeholders believe maternal mortality rates in various African countries and regions are still high, some African countries have been able to halve their maternal mortality rates.

This achievement is as a result of improvement of primary healthcare including maternal care, and the deployment of digital health tools at various levels, especially in the rural areas.

Ondo state is located in southwestern Nigeria.

As an oil-producing state, it gets millions of dollars as monthly allocation from the federal government. With these funds, the state carries several developmental projects in the state including building new hospitals and providing drugs. But none of its healthcare initiatives have been as extensively lauded as its Abiye Safe Motherhood Initiative.

Abiye in Yoruba language means ‘safe delivery’.

The initiative is supported by the Ford Foundation, Society for Family Health, The World Bank Group, WHO, United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of the initiative is to drastically reduce infant and maternal mortality in the state.

A major component of the initiative is the distribution of free mobile phones to pregnant women.

The lines offer the pregnant women free access to assigned healthcare providers and institutions. This intervention has been able to eliminate the challenges of communication in both rural and urban areas.

Since the pregnant women now have a medium through which they can access professional information, help and assistance, it has become much easier to tackle the challenges of infant and maternal healthcare in the region—using one of the most simple forms of digital health tools and mediums available.

While Abiye guides and helps pregnant women to and through delivery, a digital health tool in South Africa is helping mothers to take care of their newly born babies.

It is called MAMA – an acronym for Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action. Like Abiye, the rationale behind MAMA is to drastically reduce infant mortality rates in South Africa. Since its official deployment last year, the mobile technology has been providing information that is evidence-based and culturally-sensitive to mothers. It is also being deployed in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

While Abiye is entirely SMS-based, MAMA operates an interactive website, text messages, social networking and voicemails.

Unlike Abiye which is entirely fee free, MAMA requires a 10-cent signup fee. The service is available in various local languages including Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans. The service sends pre-recorded messages and SMS; there is also a social media aspect of the service that allows the platform to reach over 10 million MXit (a social media platform) users in South Africa.

Through MAMA, women in South Africa are being encouraged and empowered with relevant health information that is required for their specific needs and stages.

Beyond access to information and healthcare facilities, pregnant women in Africa also battle poverty.

According to the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF), poverty is a major setback to global initiatives to tackle infant and maternal mortalities in Africa and around the world. This is why the agency is working with policymakers to ensure that emergency obstetric care becomes a priority in national health plans.

While this is a long-term strategy, an initiative in Kenya is currently helping pregnant women to save money that could help them access good healthcare services during delivery; it is called Maternity Smartcard from Changamka Microhealth (CM).

CM basically operates as an integrated health financing service that innovatively uses technology to create mechanisms for delivery of easily accessible and affordable quality healthcare.

When a pregnant woman registers, she gets a maternity smartcard with which she can obtain antenatal, maternal and postnatal services in a large number of healthcare facilities. Holders can gradually top up the card via various means including mobile money.

The practicality of the initiative got the attention of the USAID that awarded a Ksh2.5 million grant to the digital health initiative.

There are several other innovative digital health solutions that are being deployed in various parts of Africa to tackle the menace of very high infant and maternal mortality rates. Even though they are numerous, the successful ones have two things in common – they are simple to use, and they are solving specific problems.

About the author: Paul Adepoju is a medical scientist, published author and award-winning Nigeria-based freelance journalist with expertise in various genres of writing including health and technology. He is the managing editor of Africa’s leading health news platform, and is a correspondent for several international media organisations. He holds a master’s degree in cell biology and genetics, a diploma in legal studies, and is currently studying the dynamics of latent and active tuberculosis genetics for PhD. He speaks regularly at major African health and technology events including NigeriaCom and Nigeria eHealth Forum.

Visit his personal website for more information; he could also be reached on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: @pauladepoju.