Of money and failure

The MAMA alliance will use mobiles to reach pregnant mothers. Image Credit: hdptar, Flickr

Just before lunch we heard from Sandhya Rao, senior advisor for private sector partnerships at USAID, about a pilot project they are going to be rolling out in Bangladesh, South Africa and India. The Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) will develop a programme to improve health of pregnant women before and after the delivery of their child.

Starting in Bangladesh, the pilot will recruit 2000 women who will then receive carefully timed SMSes with medical advice. For instance: ‘if you are bleeding during this month, you should seek medical advice’ or ‘this month, vaccinate your child to protect it from getting sick’.

The initiative will be funded by a mixture of USAID funding, host country government budgets and private funding, for instance through letting companies advertise their products in the SMSes. It also has the support of Johnson & Johnson, a company that manufactures healthcare products.

In the long term, however, the aim is to phase out the USAID funding, and make these systems sustainable on their own — drawing on government funding and private sector income predominantly.

Many mHealth projects seem to be in a financial limbo, where initial funding has been granted by somebody with deep pockets, but the future financial viability of it depends on finding a sustainable business model. I’d say that none of the ideas that we’ve heard here today — from the MAMA alliance to a South African online community for youth to discuss HIV, love and sexuality — are bad. However, it is the way of these things that several of them will fail when the initial funding runs out.

How can such failures help others succeed? By “failing quickly and failing publicly,” said Sean Blaschke, technology development specialist for UNICEF. mHealth is still in its infancy, the people at this pre-summit workshop seem to agree. But will any of tomorrow’s speeches focus on failures? Saying that you’ll report on failures is one thing, doing it in front of an audience of your competitors is another… I guess we’ll see.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

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