In South Africa, Using Mobile Technology to Improve Maternal Health Access

BY Imani M. Cheers  May 10, 2013 at 10:10 AM EDT

MAMA users in South Africa receive daily text messages filled with tips and reminders about the health of their babies. Photo by Imani M. Cheers/IRP.

Memory Banda is busy. Her 10-month old son is teething and taking his first steps around her Hillbrow home, a revitalized neighborhood in Johannesburg’s bustling city center.

“This is my first child so I didn’t know what to do when his teeth started to show,” she said. When Memory needed tips and advice about her son’s teething process, she didn’t need to go to her local clinic or call a doctor. Instead, she receives several text messages a week about her baby’s development from the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, affectionately known as MAMA — a global movement that uses mobile technologies to improve the health and lives of mothers in developing nations.

According to UNICEF, 4,300 mothers die in South Africa every year due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth, 20,000 babies are stillborn and another 23,000 die in their first month of life. In total, 75,000 children do not make it to their fifth birthday.

South African women living in poverty face many challenges, specifically access to quality health care. In communities such as Hillbrow, there are high rates of unemployment, poverty and HIV prevalence is estimated at 30 percent among pregnant women. Despite these challenges, mobile technologies are providing women with access to life-saving maternal health information.

MAMA provides pregnant women and new mothers with vital information and support using their mobile phones, through five different channels, including an interactive website, text messages, social networking and voicemails. Women are charged one rand (about 10 cents) to sign up for the MAMA services.

MAMA Mobi — the group’s interactive website — is also available to users with smartphone capabilities. Information based on specifics such as their baby’s due date or age milestones are personalized for each user. MAMA SMS sends text messages and reminders to women in five different languages, including English, Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans. MAMA Voice sends pre-recorded messages in the same languages as the text messages for users who face literacy challenges.

MAMA MXit takes advantage of the 10 million-plus users on MXit, a social networking site, and has established an educational portal for South African men and women between the ages of 18 to 25 years old with important information about pregnancy, childbirth and parenting.

MAMA South Africa faces many challenges, including literacy rates among users and he high cost of text messages. As a result of the high cost, MAMA is not currently offering nationwide text-based reminders, but the goal is to offer this to moms on a national basis in the near future. The text service will consist of a weekly message reminder from five weeks of pregnancy until a child is one year old.

In addition to encouraging and empowering mothers with stage-based health information, MAMA’s mobile messages provide reminders for mothers to go to the clinic. For mothers living with HIV, MAMA provides messages on the importance of taking ARV (antiretroviral), breastfeeding, and getting their baby tested for HIV.

MAMA South Africa is ending the pilot phase of the program and working on gearing up to increase the scale and reach of the mobile service with a goal of reaching 500,000 mothers by 2015.


This story is part of a series of reports on the impact of mobile technology and health in 10 African countries. For more, visit The Cheers Report.