Tag Archive for 'Malawi'

Why Can’t You Just Ask People? Tacit Knowledge and mHealth in Malawi

This post was originally featured in Digital Diversity, a series of blog posts curated for National Geographic by anthropologist and innovator Ken Banks. The series discusses how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

After driving south to the end of the pavement, we continued on gravel and dirt roads for a few hours, long enough for me to fall asleep and wake up several times before arriving at the district hospital. Temperatures can reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit near the Nsanje River in southern Malawi, so I was grateful to arrive in a milder season when midday temperatures hovered just under 100. For more than a year I had been using mobile phone technology to improve health services and I expected this project to follow the typical routine: discuss the plan with leaders at the local district hospital, install software on phones and computers, and train frontline health workers to deliver routine reports using a mobile phone-based data collection app called FrontlineForms.

In Malawi, government-employed community health workers (CHWs) treat children in rural villages for malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea. Although highly effective medicines exist, these three ancient afflictions remain leading causes of death among children in developing countries, often because medicines are out of stock or only available at distant locations. My goal in Malawi was to improve the flow of information from CHWs to the district hospital, so that these life saving medicines could be resupplied efficiently to remote communities.

Malawi has two major mobile network operators: Airtel and TNM. I had surveyed all 50 health workers about which mobile network had a stronger signal in each of their communities. When the training began, I was bewildered and frustrated to find that there was almost no signal for the network that 8 out of 10 had requested. I had offered to connect them to either network; why would so many choose the one with much poorer coverage? Reluctantly, they explained that although Airtel had weaker signal locally, they sold airtime in units of 25 Malawi Kwacha, while the smallest increment for TNM was 50 Kwacha. These CHWs typically had 25 Kwacha on hand but may not have 50 in their pocket when they wanted to buy airtime for personal use (work related airtime was to be reimbursed). This experience was eye opening, almost unnerving. I was distributing $100 phones to people who considered 25 Kwacha (about 15 cents in US dollars) a greater barrier to access than walking or bicycling several kilometers to reach mobile signal.

Money on hand for airtime is one of several important considerations for rural health workers. A few weeks ago I spoke with a volunteer health worker who provides immunization and antenatal care services in coastal Kenya. Mary has a solar panel on the roof of her house and one other volunteer in her community group has grid electricity, but the other 38 volunteers must travel to the market to charge their phones. Charging a phone just once costs 30 to 80 cents. For a volunteer health worker whose cash income may average a few dollars a day, the financial burden of charging a phone this way is similar to filling a car with gasoline in North America or Europe. Walking or paying for public transit to the market are inconvenient, so many volunteers wait a day or two after their phone runs out of battery.

Working in these circumstances for the last three years, I’ve learned that the key to understanding how mobile health services can proliferate is in understanding what technologies these communities are already using. There is wisdom embedded in the observed preferences of ordinary villagers. The technologies that are driving change in society today are, as a rule, already being used at a massive scale. For the urgent change-maker, cutting-edge technologies are hardly relevant, ubiquitous technologies should be captivating.

One such captivating technology is the mobile phone that costs $15 and can last a week or even two on one charge. Clunky nine-button keypads and black and white screens the size of a half-dollar coin can make these phones look second-rate, but they fill an enormous gap in households surrounded by neglected rural roads, with ineffectual postal service, no car and no land-line telephones or internet. The first-generation phone is a quaint memory in developed markets but in Africa, everyman’s phones are referred to with familiar terms such as Kabambe in Kenya and Mosewalelu in Malawi. They have become cultural icons of progress not unlike the early model T Ford, a cultural icon as the first everyman’s car in America. The low cost, long battery life, familiarity and ease of use, being less prone to theft, better supply chains, sales and repair outlets and the promotions put on by mobile network operators all contribute to the statistic that in 2011 there were 32 non-smart phones for every smart phone on the African continent.

During my first design research trip to Kenya in early 2010 I learned something about $15 phones that most Kenyans already knew: every phone can have apps – you don’t need a smartphone. I was talking with ordinary consumers about using mPesa, the wildly successful mobile banking service that lets users send money to and from any phone. I learned that mPesa is available and familiar on any kind of phone, from Android smart phones to ordinary $15 phones. This is possible because mPesa actually sits on the SIM card, not the phone itself. Many North Americans do not even realize that inside of their phone is a small chip called a SIM card that handles the phone’s connections to the mobile network. Throughout Africa, however, people frequently change their phone’s SIM card from one mobile network to another, to take advantage of evening calling rates or other sales promotions. SIM apps are viewed through the phone’s native menu which means that if you know how to check your contacts list or text message inbox on a particular phone, a SIM app on that same phone will look familiar.

The challenge with deploying health related SIM apps is that mobile network operators strictly control which apps are installed on their SIM cards. But I kept tinkering with SIM cards and after several months I discovered that some groups in the financial and security sectors, as well as hackers trying to jailbreak iPhones, use paper-thin parallel SIM cards that slide underneath the mobile network operator’s SIM. Using any standard GSM phone, we’re able to put our SIM apps on the parallel SIM and still use an ordinary SIM card to connect to any GSM mobile network in the world. About a year ago I announced that Medic Mobile would be the first mobile health organization to develop and deploy SIM apps, and since then the Medic Mobile team has started SIM app projects in several African countries.

As we take on larger SIM card projects, our goal is to work closely with mobile network operators so that the apps sit directly on the native SIM card and don’t require parallel SIMs. This will be cheaper and it’s true to the strategy that has served Medic Mobile well: no one understands the communities where we work better than the people who live in them every day. Our best chance of deploying mobile health services that are locally appropriate and manageable at a large scale, is to leverage the phones and other technologies that are already in their hands.

Mosewalelu: Mobile phone as the Moses of today

My best source of information on Malawian culture is a taxi driver named Alex. A year and a half and many rides after meeting him during my first week in Malawi, our initial discussions about how he uses his phone as a business tool have evolved to cover the news of the day and many aspects of Malawian culture. Now he knows a great deal about Medic Mobile and my interest in culture, technology and innovation, and recently he offered me a real gem.

In Chichewa, the dominant indigenous language in Malawi, the phone pictured to the right above is widely referred to as a Mosewalelu or simply Mose for short. Literally this translates to “the Moses of today” or in the shorter version, simply “a Moses.” The notion is that this was the first type of phone available to the common man, and that like Moses this technology is liberating a people from the cruel yoke of poverty and oppression and leading them to the Promised Land. This almost universally Church or Mosque attending population aren’t quite calling a cell phone a modern messiah, but it’s a lot like that.

The back story involves a Malawian musician who wrote a song naming Malawi’s president Dr. Bingu Wa Mutharika as Mosewalelu. Much has changed economically for Malawi in the last few years, some of which President Mutharika has played a direct role in (such as a somewhat controversial but massively popular fertilizer subsidy for small plot subsistence farmers), and other changes which have been led largely by private companies (including explosive growth in mobile telecommunications). It was during Mutharika’s first term that mobile connectivity rapidly scaled up to cover a majority of Malawi’s predominantly rural population, and about the same time that the two telecoms began selling these Hauwei and ZTE phones for as little as $12 USD. I can’t claim to know the whole story, but somehow the public mind shifted the term Mosewalelu away from the president, instead connecting it to these ultra low cost phones. As Alex said “This was was the first phone for every man, before there were phones but it was only big men or organizations, now we can every man have a phone like this (gesturing upwards with hand as if seizing something substantive).” In my experience working with subsistence farmers who volunteer as community health workers, somewhere approaching or exceeding half the population do not yet have phones. They do have almost universal access to a mobile phone, at least for emergencies, via spouses, relatives, or neighbors. To say the least, these ultra low cost phones made mobile telecommunications an industry with mass appeal in Malawi.

Friends and colleagues frequently ask me for a massively abbreviated sketch of the mobile landscape in East Africa so I often use an analogy with the role that cars have played in American culture. Mobile phones and cars both confer a very concrete power through mobility – either mobility of the person or the ability to communicate long distance. The Mosewalelu plays the role of the model T as the first point of mass access and therefore the route to mass appeal. Before mass access, cars and mobile phones largely remained culturally obscure like yachts and other toys of the elite. Many North Americans would call the Nokia 1680 pictured center above a low-end feature phone, but in Malawi this phone has massive sex appeal like a 1960s Masarati Roadster or Shelby Cobra. Such elite versions are only available to an economic elite, but the status they confer interestingly relies on the fact that they are seen as the better version of a Mosewalelu, the elite version of a technology that everyone is already discussing. And of course like the well designed yet economical Volkswagens and Toyotas there are the well made mid-range phones like the Nokia 1208 on the left.

After hearing this fascinating story from Alex I approached a number of other Malawian friends and invariably they recognized the term and laughed. “How does a Zungu (white person) know what you call this?” Too often Malawians find that their foreign colleagues care little about their language and we tend to be sadly apathetic if not antagonistic about social phenomena that reference religious practice (North Americans and Europeans are usually fascinated by traditional ceremonies, religious or otherwise, but we seem to think we already know too much about Christianity and Islam). Learning about this term was really fun and it underscored my frequent perception that you can’t really understand a technology until you understand the social circumstances surrounding its use.

FrontlineSMS Update for Malawi’s Ministry of Health Data Standards Meeting

View more presentations from Isaac Holeman.

I have been working in Malawi for about six months now, and though I miss home (Oregon), I am beginning to feel comfortable and increasingly productive here. Malawi is a wonderful place to work. I have met many good people and seen much of the land. I have yet to explore so much more, but I have been very busy and very content with work.

Last Thursday, February 4th, I had the fortunate opportunity to present at a National Data Standards Meeting, convened at the Cresta Hotel in Lilongwe by Chris Moyo of the Central Monitoring and Evaluation Division of Malawi’s Ministry of Health. These slides offer a brief overview of FrontlineSMS:Medic’s evolution in Malawi, the current work that has kept me busy for the last six months, a few lessons learned, and some of our vision and strategy for the future.

If you have questions, ideas, critiques, or general feedback, I’d love to see it in the comments or on Twitter.

Note: If you click through to this presentation on slideshare.net, you can select the Notes tab underneath the presentation to see more or less the full text of this talk.




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