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Kenya Has Mobile Health App Fever

Nairobi startup’s health app surges; Safaricom gives subscribers links to experts for two cents a minute.

Mobile health platforms are fast emerging in Kenya, where one startup’s newly launched mobile health platform is attracting nearly 1,000 downloads daily, and the dominant telecom, Safaricom, has forged a partnership that will give its 18 million subscribers access to doctors.

A World Bank official sees significant promise from such efforts, pointing to the fact that 50 percent of all Kenyan banking is already done on mobile phones—suggesting that the population is ready to go mobile with health care, too.

“In terms of providing basic services through mobile phones on the continent, Kenya is in the lead in many ways, and showing the way,” says Elizabeth Ashbourne, director of global health information forums at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. “Local applications in the health space are absolutely frontier activities.”

Many Kenyans have serious health problems; for example, according to the World Health Organization, more than 30 percent of children under age five show stunted growth. At present, only 7,000 doctors serve a nation of 40 million people. But Kenya is rich in mobile phones, with 25 million subscribers (Africa has more than 600 million of them).

The new app, called MedAfrica—available for smart phones and less powerful feature phones—is the product of Shimba Technologies, a Nairobi-based company founded by two locally educated entrepreneurs, Stephen Kyalo and Keziah Mumo, with $100,000 in seed money from a European VC.

Shimba’s business model is straight from Silicon Valley: free content supported by advertising, with future plans to offer premium content for a subscription, and to charge doctors about $10 a month for access to its user base. Of the 25,000 people who have downloaded since the launch in November, 60 percent are “active users,” says Kyalo. Shimba has not yet sold ads or begun trying to get doctors to pay.

The ambitions are ultimately pan-African. “The goal is to have MedAfrica as a household name in African homes and to provide increased health care to the masses,” Kyalo says. “We want to impact the lives in Africa. People still are dying from malaria. The problem is too few heads with vital information.”

The platform aggregates information from many sources. So far, it supplies first-aid recommendations from local hospitals, and health alerts and updates from other hospitals, as well as lists of doctors and dentists. The company plans to connect to a data feed from the national Ministry of Health for information on things like disease outbreaks or the discovery of counterfeit drugs. Shimba also hopes to aggregate information from NGOs.

Shimba expects to launch a Yelp-like comment feature by January that would let users comment on the doctors.  “I think the greater value will come when I know not just a laundry list of providers, but also context for who is better,” says Erik Hersman, cofounder of Ushahidi, the mobile crisis and event-mapping platform, and a creator of iHub, an organization devoted to bringing together innovators and investors in Nairobi.

“MedAfrica is a continuation of the innovation we continue to see out of the Kenyan tech startup scene,” Hersman says. “It gives access to information on doctors, clinics, and other health-care information in a simple way, on simple phones, for ordinary Kenyans.”

MedAfrica is, however, still a small effort, and it faces competition from the country’s dominant telecom—Safaricom. At nearly the same time that MedAfrica launched, Safaricom forged a partnership with another startup, Call-a-Doc, to allow Safaricom’s 18 million subscribers to call ­doctors for expert advice for about two cents a minute. A smaller SMS-based mobile-health effort, called Mpedigree, is rolling out at health-care centers to provide a way to check serial numbers on drugs to make sure counterfeits are not being administered in Kenya.

The fact that nearly 1,000 people daily are downloading the app is “very solid,” Hersman says. And Ashbourne adds: “That’s a respectable number. Even that people know to do that at all—I think that’s pretty impressive.”

Mobile health platforms are making a strong showing in other parts of Africa, too. In South Africa, efforts include platforms that give HIV-infected patients automated ways to receive health information and reminders about upcoming doctor visits. In Johannesburg, 10,000 people infected with HIV have taken on these SMS-based alerts, resulting in big declines in missed appointments.

In Ghana and Liberia, a group called Africa Aid is experiencing strong success with MDNet, a system that allows users to call or text doctors for free. Since its founding in 2008, 1,900 physicians in Ghana have logged more than a million calls to patients, the group says.

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