Kenya's Startup Boom

February 24th, 2012  |  Source: Technology Review

Local programmers and homegrown business models are helping to realize the vast promise of using phones to improve health care and save lives.

 

Erick Njenga, a 21-year-old college senior wrapping up his business IT degree at Nairobi's Strathmore University, has a gap-toothed grin and a scraggly goatee. A mild-mannered son of auditors, he didn't say much as we tucked into a lunch of grilled steak, rice, and fruit juice at an outdoor café amid the din of the city's awful traffic. But his code had done the talking.

Last year Njenga and three classmates developed a program that will let thousands of Kenyan health workers use mobile phones to report and track the spread of diseases in real time—and they'd done it for a tiny fraction of what the government had been on the verge of paying for such an application. Their success—and that of others in the nation's fast-growing startup scene—demonstrates the emergence of a tech-savvy generation able to address Kenya's public-health problems in ways that donors, nongovernmental organizations, and multinational companies alone cannot.

Njenga was humble about the project, but the problem he had tackled was critical in a nation where one in 25 is HIV-positive (10 times the U.S. rate) and AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria are among the leading killers. In 2010, the Kenyan government realized it had to do something about its chaotic system for tracking infectious diseases in order to improve the response to outbreaks and report cases to the World Health Organization. Handwritten reports and text messages describing deaths and new cases of disease would stream in from more than 5,000 clinics around the nation and pivot through more than 100 district offices before being manually entered into a database in Nairobi.

The health ministry wanted to let community health workers put information into the database directly from mobile phones, which are ubiquitous in Kenya. The ministry initially sought a solution the usual way: it explored hiring a multinational contractor. It drafted a contract with the Netherlands office of Bharti Airtel, the Indian telecommunications giant that also operates a mobile network in Kenya.

The company proposed spending tens of thousands of dollars on mobile phones and SIM cards for the data-gathering task, and it said it would need another $300,000 to develop the data application on the phones. The total package ran to $1.9 million.

Abstract only. Full story here: http://www.technologyreview.com/communications/39673/?mod=chthumb




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