Using mobile phones to combat medicine shortages in Africa

January 4, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Most of the coverage (and hype) around mobile phones and development is based on their potential to improve access to markets for small farmers, especially those in remote areas and to provide easy ways to transfer small amounts of money in the absence of functioning bank networks. But mobiles, which are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in most poor countries (like a kind of technological Coca Cola), have some real possibilities for those campaigning on access to essential services such as healthcare, according to an article by Ken Banks.

The “Stop Stock-Outs” campaign is based around a little-known, but devastating, problem. Medicine stock-outs — where local clinics and pharmacies run out of high-demand, crucial medicines — are a potentially lethal problem in a number of African countries, yet governments insist they don’t occur. The team behind the project set out to find a solution and asked themselves, “What could be more powerful than a map which contradicts these government claims?”

Last year, activists in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia started surveying clinics in their respective countries, checking stock levels of essential medicines. These included first-line antimalarials, zinc tablets, penicillin, first-line anti-retrovirals (ARVs) for the treatment of HIV/AIDS, and diarrhoea medication. Each of these medicines is widely used in the four countries.

After visiting clinics and pharmacies, activists reported their results using their mobile phones through structured, coded text messages (SMS) – “x,y,z” – where the first number represented their country code (Kenya, Malawi, Uganda or Zambia), the second their district or city, and the third the medicine which they found to be out of stock. The messages were then visually displayed on an online map, showing specific reports by location and building up “hot spots” of activity. In the case of the “Stop Stock-Outs” campaign, the bigger the hotspot the greater the number of stock-outs, and the greater the problem in that area.

Within the first week alone, the team collected reports of 250 stock-outs of essential medicines in their four target countries. Because incoming data automatically populates the map, it represents an almost real-time picture of stock-outs. After a successful launch and a week piloting the service, the “stock-out SMS number” has been distributed to medicine users throughout each country so that anyone with a mobile phone can send in a stock-out report. However, unlike reports from official, known data collectors, these messages will firstly be checked by staff at Health Action International before being posted up on the map. Then the government can’t deny it’s happening and the public pressure can really start.

stockouts map

Very smart indeed. Anyone know of other examples of using mobiles to campaign on essential services? Oh, and Happy New Year everyone…..

[h/t Nancy Holden]