SMS for Health
Did you know that 2.5 billion people worldwide suffer from malnutrition? And did you also know that in some cases, a balanced diet would be enough to prevent devastating chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes? Yes, sometimes it really is that simple. Read More
Did you know that 2.5 billion people worldwide suffer from malnutrition? And did you also know that in some cases, a balanced diet would be enough to prevent devastating chronic diseases like cancer? Yes, sometimes it really is that simple. But sadly, not everyone knows what constitutes a proper diet, or they simply ignore dietary recommendations. That’s what new SMS service in Rwanda hopes to change: by offering custom-tailored dietary plans for patients.
Have you heard of hidden hunger? Perhaps not, since hidden hunger or malnutrition hardly ever makes the headlines in the major media. Yet malnutrition affects around 2.5 billion people globally. These people have enough to eat, but their diets are so nutritionally one-sided that they result in physical and psychological damage. Studies estimate that around 50 million US citizens are affected – to name just one of the largest consumer countries. And worldwide an astonishing 30% of all children under the age of five are stunted by a lack of essential vitamins.
This goes against our conventional image: More often than we might imagine, malnutrition does not occur simply because people do not have access to the vitamins they need, but because they lack information about what constitutes a healthy diet.
30% of all children under the age of five are stunted by a lack of essential vitamins.
The same is true of other health problems, by the way: Many illnesses could be healed or improved if patients would eat more healthfully. But it is often so much easier to quickly prepare the same thing you ate the day before or just grab a ready-made meal - no matter if you live in the USA, Rwanda or Bangladesh.
Rwanda’s Minister of Health once said that the major cause of malnutrition is a lack of awareness of what constitutes a proper diet: “There is no reason Rwanda is facing malnutrition, except that some people are ignorant of what they should eat and how.”
The company offers mobile information about illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Aphrodice Mutangana took this to heart. In 2011 the agricultural scientist founded Foyo Group Ltd. The company offers mobile information services for chronic and potentially devastating illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Subscribers receive important dietary information via daily text messages.
“During my visits to hospitals, I often witnessed first-hand people who were in the terminal stages of their chronic diseases just because of a lack of basic information,” Aphrodice told us. “A good diet could have significantly improved their wellbeing.”
As mobile phone penetration is growing fast in Rwanda, where more than 70% of Rwandans use a mobile phone today, Aphrodice chose to use opt-in SMS technology. He teamed up with a group of dieticians, pharmacists and specialists from other areas to “create a healthier and more educated population in the places that need it most”.
Daily SMS service
When registering for Foyo m-Health, subscribers have to provide personal data such as age, weight, blood group type and any diseases they may have. They then receive daily text messages about a balanced diet tailored to their specific needs by a team of dieticians. All of this in 160 characters, for example: “Morning: ordinary white rice, meat sauce, salad of tomatoes & onion and fruit; lunch: cassava flour, meat sauce, salad + small weight. Dinner: Fresh fruit juice”.
Furthermore, they have access to an interactive platform for mobile phones, where they can post inquiries or request advice from pharmacists and medical specialists. They choose the medical specialist they want to contact (cardiologist, palliative care, internist or paediatrician) and the disease they want to know about, and can then ask for information about symptoms or prevention methods. When contacting a pharmacist, they can ask about dosage, drug and food interactions, or the side-effects of a drug.
“Of course, the doctors can only provide basic information and do not give medical treatment over the phone,” Aphrodice tells us. “When necessary, they encourage people to go to the hospital. For instance, if a customer writes that he has a headache and is vomiting, the only advice we can give is: ‘Go to hospital to get checked out.’ ”
The future: Voice-command SMS
Foyo explicitly wants to reach out to poorer people in rural areas too. That’s why the service has to be cheap and easily accessible. “An SMS usually costs about 65 Rwf, the equivalent to 10 cents in USD,” Aphrodice explains. “But we are currently re-working our business model and will soon offer the service free of charge.”
Aphrodice is also aware that certain segment of the population is currently still unable to use the application. Around 30 % of all Rwandans cannot read or write. “That’s how the idea of developing Interactive Voice Response (IVR) was born,” he explains. “The IVR will work just like the SMS and smartphone platforms, but it will be voice-activated. In future, we want to concentrate on this because it saves time and SMS are limited to just 160 characters.” This is a service also likely to appeal to older people who have trouble reading the tiny characters on their smartphones.
Awards and visions
But setting up Foyo was not easy. The four main challenges were my fairly poor knowledge of IT and the medical field, the large percentage of people who don’t know how to read, lack of start-up capital, and the task of making the business sustainable. But once launched, the news about Foyo m-Health spread quickly via social media, print media, radio and bulk SMS – so that today, many people are taking advantage of the services.
“One of the best days in Foyo’s life was probably when we won the Seedstars World/Kigali competition,” Aphrodice says. “This showed us that we made something that the world could actually use one day.” Later on, FOYO m-Health also emerged as a runner-up in the mHealth & Environment category of the African e-content awards.
And plans for the future are even more ambitious: In March 2015, Aphrodice’s team created Napteker, a complementary service to Foyo m-Health. It is a pharmaceutical online directory that provides education and information on drugs. “Napteker is still in the first phase, but we can already see the impact it will have,” Aphrodice explains.
“Napteker is still in the beginning phase, but we can already see the impact it will have.”
What are Aphrodice’s dreams? His big dream is to build a big hospital like the John Hopkins hospital in Rwanda. But first of all, he wants to grow and “expand the Foyo service to more countries worldwide”. This is sure to be no problem for the serial entrepreneur: Since malnutrition is a growing issue worldwide, we feel certain he will continue to enjoy resounding success in Rwanda and beyond.