Using mobile in Sub-Saharan Africa to talk nutrition

from Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition
Published on 17 Jun 2015 View Original

Africa has been named the ‘mobile continent’. An often cited example of development leapfrogging, countries have gone from no telephones to cell phones, skipping the need for investment in landlines altogether. And innovation has not stopped there. A wide array of services, offered through mobile platforms, have popped up to meet consumer demand. From mobile banking to news flashes, Africans engage with their mobile phones in ways not offered to the average consumer in the developed world.

Mobile operators are aware of the consumer demand, and are always developing new services to increase customer loyalty. They have a big market opportunity to tap into. Two thirds of Africans own a mobile phone, but multiple users, each with their own unique SIM card can share the same phone, exponentially expanding the reach of mobile service beyond phone ownership.

Smart phone use remains low but mobile companies offer a high degree of services that can be accessed by a basic feature phone, so popular on the continent that they often have their own national nicknames. In Ghana, the “yam” phone is as popular as yams, a food which is easily replicated by cutting the plant’s vine and sticking it back in the soil. Given that simple text messaging accounts for over 80% of cell phone use in Africa,[1] mobile services account for this, pushing messages to users, and allowing them to “pull” content guided by USSD decision trees.

Within the development community, mobile has been recognized as a delivery channel to reach millions. Airtime affordability stretches across all socio-economic classes, allowing for targeting of hard to reach populations in ways previously unimaginable. 43% of Mobile for Development (M4D) services target the health sector, tracking disease outbreaks, training community health care workers, delivering advice on sexual and reproductive health to women and much more.

Globally, malnutrition is associated with 45% of all deaths of children under five years of age and is the number one contributor to the burden of disease among young children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, while the links between morbidity, mortality and malnutrition have been well established, it remains difficult to embed nutrition interventions into traditional health care models. Resource constraints, in terms of time and training, limit the ability of health care workers to deliver one-on-one nutrition counselling to mothers. Further, while many services target women in pregnancy, few are able to capture women prior to conception, which would benefit the health and nutrition status of both mother and child. If linked into existing national programs and services, mobile technologies are increasingly seen as a solution which can, help address these gaps.

While there are hundreds of mHealth services across the continent, there are few which encompass nutrition. Those that are available often target health workers as the end user, rather than women and their families. The few services that do directly talk to mothers and their families do not always deliver high quality, evidence-based messages, resulting in misguidance and confusion. There is a need for the development of high quality nutrition information, which is based on global evidence but broken down and made comprehensible to locally targeted audiences.

Read more about the mNutrition initiative which seeks to embed nutrition messaging in existing mAgri and mHealth platforms. GAIN leads the implementation of the development of nutrition content for these services in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Mozambique.