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UNICEF mobile innovation making impact in Africa

November 18, 2013 • East Africa, Mobile and Telecoms, North Africa, Southern Africa, West Africa

Four years after its introduction, a mobile innovation called RapidSMS, developed by two United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) employees, continues to bring about significant change in key regions throughout Africa. Africa Renewal reports on the progress of this mobile realtime information application.

RapidSMS in action. The innovation continues to have a major impact on the health of citizens throughout Africa. (Image source: Google/unicefinnovationlabs.org)

RapidSMS in action. The innovation continues to have a major impact on the health of citizens throughout Africa. (Image source: Google/unicefinnovationlabs.org)

When in 2009 Christopher Fabian and Erica Kochi, two employees of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), developed RapidSMS, a platform for data gathering and group communication using the short messaging system (SMS) on mobile phones, their aim was simply to tackle the problem of slow data transmission within the food security surveillance system in Malawi. Four years later, RapidSMS is touching the lives of millions in many African countries, helping to record births and monitor distribution of mosquito nets in Nigeria, monitor neonatal health in Zambia and track food distribution in the Horn of Africa, among other uses.

Mr. Fabian and Ms. Kochi are now global celebrities. U.S.-based Time magazine included them on its list of 100 most influential people in the world in 2013. “I am proud to be their colleague. This is a great recognition of how the 21st century ideas and tools can transform ordinary people’s lives in an extraordinary way,” says UNICEF’s executive director Anthony Lake.

RapidSMS is a simple tool that helps frontline workers send data through SMS texts to a secure website. Decision-makers—and the public—can monitor such data in real time and determine progress in projects even in remote communities. Where necessary, they can also intervene promptly.

Nigeria, where RapidSMS was deployed in January 2011, registered about 7 million new births by the end of 2012. Birth registrars in 686 local government areas in 33 of its 36 states delivered data through SMS texts to a Internet-based dashboard.  Before 2011, Nigeria could record only half of the country’s 6 million births per year, says UNICEF on its website, adding, “Without a birth certificate, a child is much less likely to get educated, be vaccinated or receive health services.”

RapidSMS’s built-in feedback loop, which provides quick feedback to health workers, for example, on “the nutritional diagnosis of each child based on the data sent in,” makes it an important tool. It helps workers to respond to the needs of each child. Pregnant women in Rwanda and children living with HIV in Zambia consider such quick information about their medical needs a great help.

Not long ago, health workers in Nigeria used to manually record birth information such as weight, upper-arm circumference and height, which they then passed on to their headquarters. There the information was entered manually into a database before it was analyzed. RapidSMS has changed all that, as it provides “access to accurate, timely and actionable information,” says UNICEF.

To reach millions, project managers in the coming years are likely to rely increasingly on mobile phones’ SMS texts. This is because Africa currently has more than 650 million mobile phone users, according to the World Bank. In 1998 the figure was about 2 million. Most public workers have a mobile phone today, notes UNICEF.

Although RapidSMS provides useful real-time information, Merick Schaefer, a World Bank innovation specialist, says that “technology is only one element of innovation. The question is, can institutional practices keep pace?” Mr. Schaefer wants people to adjust the way they work to take advantage of real-time data. An innovation such as RapidSMS, combined with technology-focused practices, can make a huge impact on people’s lives.

Staff writer

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