The health innovator
Gustav Praekelt, Founder and CEO, Praekelt Group, South Africa
The Praekelt Foundation is a non-profit organisation that turns mobile phones into health tools. It focuses on using mobile services, portals, social networks and applications to fight poverty and improve health and wellbeing.
Winner of the Inclusive Technology Award at the 2014 Inclusive Healthcare Innovation Summit
In the late 1990s, Gustav Praekelt – a computer technologist specialising in website development and motion-capture video – was wandering around Dar es Salaam when he noticed two things. One: everybody had a mobile phone. And two: hardly anyone was using them to talk.
If the First Wave of the Cellular Revolution was the arrival of mobile phones on the market, this was the beginning of the Second Wave: using the devices for short messaging and instant access to information. Combine the messaging and informing functions and you have a tool that could change people’s behaviour and lives. These are bold, far-reaching ideals, but they begin with a simple premise: ubiquity. Cellphones are everywhere.
“A phone is a personal, individual device, but it also connects people,” says Praekelt, who started the Foundation in 2007. “If you put the right kind of content on it, you can really make a difference.”
The first proof of concept was a service called TxtAlert, which sends SMSes to people with chronic conditions, reminding them to take medication and keep clinic appointments. In the initial trial at the Themba Lethu Clinic in Johannesburg, missed appointments fell from 30% to 4% when patients began receiving TxtAlert reminders. The free-to-use service has since been extended to include TB-treatment reminders and messages of advice to pregnant women, focusing on preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
The success of this initiative led logically to MAMA: Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action. This uses three mobile channels to “inform and empower mothers”. There are weekly SMSs – from the fifth week of pregnancy to the baby’s first birthday – with advice on nutrition, child safety, vaccination and developmental milestones. But MAMA also makes use of the mobile power of connectivity through a community portal, askmama.mobi, featuring polls, articles, life-guides and mothers’ stories.
The service has been well accepted, says Praekelt. “Mothers report feeling informed, validated and empowered, and have changed their behaviour as a result of mobile messaging.”
Then there’s YoungAfricaLive, a mobile social network developed in partnership with Vodacom South Africa in a bid to combat HIV/Aids. Targeting young people, the focus is on love, sex and healthy relationships, with lifestyle and celebrity articles, blogs, surveys and live chats hosted by the young people themselves.
Inclusive, easy to use, and affordable, the Praekelt Foundation’s initiatives are proof that mobile technology can make the connections that have the power to change behaviours and lives. “Mobile has become the primary means by which people want to access information,” says Praekelt. “But you need to begin by looking at real-world problems, and asking how you can use mobile to solve them. You need to ask people, ’How can we make your life easier or better?’ People will only change their behaviour if they’re connected to people they trust.”
For more information visit: praekeltfoundation.org
The lesson learned
Look for African solutions to African problems. The sophistication of modern technology can sometimes blind the innovator to the simplest, best and most appropriate solutions. You don’t need the latest smartphone to send a Please Call Me or receive an SMS.
ALL THE WINNING INNOVATIONS IN HEALTHCARE: Nominations poured in. There were so many innovators to consider and commend. But, at the close of the first Inclusive Healthcare Innovation Summit (IHIS) in Cape Town 2014, a winner (or two) was finally chosen from the finalists in each of the five award categories. Meet the prize-winning people and projects here… Collaborative Reimagining Award: → Operation Sakuma Sakhe → Electronic Continuity Of Care Record (eCCR) / Transforming the System from the Inside Out Award: → Parents Guidance Centre Reakgona → AfriTox / Minding the Gap Award: → Umthombo Youth Development Foundation /Inclusive Technology Award: → Praekelt Foundation / Pioneering Approaches Award: → Kheth’Impilo
Adapted from the 2014 Health Innovator’s Review, compiled by Inclusive Healthcare Innovation, a joint initiative between the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Business, and the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences.