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African smartphone health

Guilherme Correia da Silva
October 16, 2012

Smartphones are revolutionizing Africa healthcare. Ugandan software developers are designing an app that could radically change antenatal care in remote areas and save hundreds of lives.

Smart phones will have a growing role in sub-Saharan Africa's future
Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images For The Clinton Foundation

The World Bank estimates about 10 percent of babies born in Uganda die before their fifth birthday. Pregnant women barely have access to healthcare. There is only one nurse for every 5000 pregnant Ugandans - many of whom have to walk long distances to reach the closest clinic.

To help tackle the problem software developer Aaron Tushabe and his team have developed a smartphone app that can monitor the heartbeat of unborn children called WinSenga.

"We don't want this application to address the problems just today," says Tushabe, "we want to make this solution viable for the future. That's why we used a smartphone platform."

WinSenga uses a Pinard horn - an instrument similar to an ear trumpet. Midwives have been using Pinard horns for more than a century to listen to the heartbeat of fetuses.

The team modified the horn by inserting an internal microphone and allowing it to connect to a smartphone. The midwife places the horn on the pregnant woman's belly, clicks a button on the smartphone app and a graphic with the unborn child's heartbeat appears.

Mobile antenatal care

WinSenga won this year's Microsoft East and Southern Africa Imagine Cup. But the app's developers say it needs more testing in the field before it can be fully implemented.

The WinSenga team (left to right): Joshua Okello, Josiah Kavuma, Aaron Tushabe and Joseph Kaizzi
The WinSenga team (left to right): Joshua Okello, Josiah Kavuma, Aaron Tushabe and Joseph KaizziImage: Aaron Tushabe

Tushabe says he hopes it will become a substitute for expensive ultrasound scans, particularly in areas where there is no electricity.

"We are moving from a device that was stationary and would not function when electricity wasn't available. Now we have a device which is mobile and has a battery life of five to 10 hours, but still has a battery life," says Tushabe.

So, midwives could soon provide medical assistance in remote areas with mobile devices.

Hungry for cheaper smartphones

The number of people using cell phones in Africa is rising steadily. The Gallup research consultancy says about 57 percent of adults in 17 Sub-Saharan Africa countries own a mobile phone. There are 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

While smartphones are considered too expensive for most Africans, Tushabe says he is confident the number of users will rise.

"It is predicted that in three years' time there'll be more of these devices in Africa than in the US," says Tushabe. "The communities here in Africa have been very positive towards the adoption of smartphones, especially young people."

Henry Addo, a Ghanaian software developer with non-profit tech firm Ushahidi agrees.

"If a company focuses on making really affordable smartphones for Sub-Saharan Africa, that company will make a lot of money because people are hungry for it," says Addo.

A man using a mobile phone in an African country
Africa is one of the world's fastest-growing mobile communications marketsImage: picture alliance/Mika Schmidt

And prices are coming down. In 2011, Kenyan telecoms operator Safaricom partnered with Chinese mobile maker Huawei to produce an Android phone that costs $80 dollars - around 65 euros.

'Large desire'

But the cost is not the only problem.

Erica Kochi of UNICEF's tech innovations team says manufacturers will have to improve battery life significantly if smartphones are to achieve their full potential in Africa. Kochi says mobiles will also have to become more robust and easier to repair.

"If these challenges can be overcome, I do see them taking off because there is a large desire, not only for connectivity and communication, but also for access to more rich content and information," she Kochi.

The future is just around the corner. UNICEF plans to help Aaron Tushabe and his team in the implementation phase of their fetal monitoring system in Uganda.