New Kenyan Services to Innovate Mobile Health and Farming

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Kenya is home to a vibrant innovation culture centred around mobile phones. While not all the services launched will be successful, the flurry of start-ups shows the country has the right combination of technical skills, bright ideas and cash to make a go of new services.

With the number of mobile phone users leaping 28 per cent in 2011, to reach 25 million subscribers out of a population of 39 million (Reuters), the country has a large market for mobile phone-based services. Kenya also has 10 million people with access to the Internet, up from 4 million in 2009.

Two issues critical to the well-being of Kenyans – health services and farming – are being tackled by new mobile phone services. One is a service being run and marketed by a major player in the market, and the other, by a small start-up.

Statistics indicate that in Kenya, one doctor attends to over 10,000 patients. The World Health Organization recommends a ratio of 1:600. There are just over 7,500 licensed medical facilities in the country.

Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecoms operator, is trying to take the pressure off overstretched medical and health systems with a new mobile health service. Its 24-hour health advice and referral service is called ‘Daktari 1525’ and lets people call and speak with a doctor or an expert to get advice on any health issue. The number 1525 refers to the dialling code which links users directly to the Safaricom call centre. Daktari 1525 is available to the 18 million Safaricom subscribers.

Safaricom has partnered with ‘Call-a-Doc’ to launch the tool. The new service hopes to relieve outpatient departments in government hospitals and health facilities with its advice and referrals. The Daktari 1525 service does not prescribe a treatment to the callers, avoiding the legal risks of remote diagnosis.

It also offers home remedies and health tips on healthy lifestyles. In an emergency, users can also dial Daktari 1525 if there is Safaricom network coverage.

The partnership is divided between Safaricom and Call-a-Doc. Safaricom handles all the mobile phone network infrastructure, the call centre facility and the marketing of the service. Call-a-Doc takes care of recruiting doctors.

But how does the service use the doctors’ time well? The shifts are designed to surge the number of doctors to 15 during peak times, falling to as few as four doctors during off-peak times. The doctors work on a part-time basis and there are currently 50 employed by the service.

Not everyone is convinced the service will work.

“It is a good attempt to venture into the field; however we would like to caution the practitioners involved that they must remain ethical and must at all times uphold professional confidentiality,” Medical Practitioners and Dentist Board Chief Executive Officer Daniel Yumbya told Capital News.

Another new service based in the capital, Nairobi, is trying to shake up the world of farming. Its new mobile phone service, “MFarm: connecting farmers” (http://mfarm.co.ke/) calls itself “a transparency tool for Kenyan farmers”.

It bills itself as a “factory of ideas” looking to find “creative agribusiness solutions.” The service is a paid-for web platform that helps farmers keep track of prices in the capital, Nairobi, and claims to have signed up 3,000 farmers in the first year of operations.

The service offers crop prices by sending a text to the numbers 3535 if the user gives the crop location required. As an example, the user texts “price crop location” “price maize Nairobi”. Users can also sell their crops, or buy farm supplies.

It also allows farmers to group sell their crops by getting together with other small-scale farmers. This is a crucial service because it allows the smaller farmer to sell into the wholesale markets where prices are better. Farmers can also group buy, benefiting from lower prices by buying bulk from suppliers. It cleverly offers several ‘plans’ to suit budgets. There is an ‘Eco Plan’ at the low end, a mid-range ‘Pro Plan’, and a bells-and-whistles option, ‘Biz Plan’.

The service also benefits from its connections with iHub Nairobi (http://ihub.co.ke/pages/home.php), the buzzing “open space for technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in Nairobi.” It provides a strong support network to turn to when problems arise.

It seems as if it would be a mistake to enter the African market with any new tech solution without first checking out the scene in Nairobi.

Resources

1) iHub Nairobi: Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community is an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. The space has a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers, designers and researchers. Website: http://ihub.co.ke/pages/home.php

2) EPROM: Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles aims to foster mobile phone-related research and entrepreneurship. Website: http://www.media.mit.edu/ventures/EPROM

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