How we can capitalise on mHealth opportunities in Africa

Dr Marlon-Ralph Avatar
mHealth, Telemedicine

Mobile Health or mHealth is one of the newest aspects of 21st-century healthcare. It has tremendous potential to make healthcare more accessible, faster and cost effective.

Not only is it becoming an expanding field of medicine but it’s also a rapidly expanding billion dollar industry.¬†According to a report published in the Economist, the global revenues of mHealth are forecasted to reach $21,5 billion in 2018.

image credit - The Economist
image credit – The Economist

This is remarkable considering that 2013 total revenues were under $5 billion. All this is driven by the increasing number and range of health-related apps and mobile devices available on the market.

Most of the projected revenues are expected to come from North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific regions where more apps are likely to have established commercial business models.

Our region contributes less than the others mainly because sadly healthcare in Africa is often less of a commercial approach. As it stands it is mostly funded by a different kind of investor – the donor agencies.

These multinational entities have invested in solving perennial problems such as HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria in Africa and are realising the need to innovate in search of more cost-effective solutions.

This has driven them to turn towards mHealth culminating in big opportunities for both tech and health professionals. Some of these opportunities are also open to Zimbabweans.

US-based Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation recently announced a request for proposals inviting potential consultants to develop a mobile application that will record select patient information which will be used to track patients’ clinic appointments, send automated SMS reminders of clinic appointment date, facilitate patient tracking and report on chosen outcomes as part of a comprehensive HIV and TB prevention, care and treatment program.

The project is intended for implementation in 121 health facilities throughout Lesotho. If you are interested you can download the full bid documents from the EGPAF website. You will have to hurry though because the final deadline is the 29th of March 2016!

The US Embassy in Harare also announced a great opportunity for mHealth intervention through the Dreams Innovation Challenge which is offering a potential $85million.

According to its website “DREAMS is seeking innovative solutions to further DREAMS’ commitment to reduce HIV infections by infusing new thinking and high-impact approaches to meet the urgent, complex needs of adolescent girls and young women in 10 sub-Saharan African countries.”

They are calling on all innovators (including mHealth innovators) to apply before the 28th of March 2016.

There is quite a demand for innovation in health although not all opportunities will nakedly present themselves as these. A Ministry of Health official who attended the recently held 46th World Conference on Lung Health in Cape Town informed me that the bulk of discussions they had, mentioned or advocated for the incorporation of technology or mHealth.

The key to meeting this demand for innovation in health is a collaboration between health professionals and the IT experts or software developers. However, my personal experiences in Zimbabwe have been quite disappointing. It has proved to be quite a nightmare finding a skilled and experienced software developer who can choose to spare enough time to work on an idea.

This is particularly the case if there is no money available upfront for the initial development. It then becomes a tragic case of myopia. Donor agencies are the biggest investors in healthcare in Africa. However convincing them to accept a new mHealth based innovation usually requires a demonstration by means of a working prototype. This is what some developers then fail to appreciate and end up sidelining or literally sitting on the ideas we health professionals would have put forward.

Conversely, the tech community has also been victim to the health profession’s myopia. An example is the negative response that Econet’s Dial a Doc got from the Medical and Dental Practitioner’s Council of Zimbabwe.

Part of the solution lies in teaching health professionals to code. A greater part of it is establishing mutual understanding between the co-dependent health and tech communities.

mHealth is a developing industry with billions of dollars to be made and more importantly, lives to be served and saved. For us to capitalize on the opportunities mHealth presents we must realize that teamwork makes the dream work.


  1. musharuka

    mhealth is a good idea but Zimbabwe is slow to catch up with technology. The resistance you will face is too much especially with an archaic,conservative and paranoid health regulatory body. First there has to be a paradigm shift(as tendai biti likes to say kkk) in the way of thinking of this regulatory body before much progress can be done otherwise they are there to just smear any mhealth programme in the press.

    1. Dr Marlon-Ralph

      It’s inevitable, I’m sure they will come to a realization of the benefits.

      1. reggie

        The challenge is on us health innovators to come up with products that have a high product-market fit and fidelity to local settings. Currently innovators have concentrated much on learning code an developing apps with little focus on sales/distribution channels, market size — basically the business side of a innovation.

  2. Reggie

    Spot on! good article

    1. Dr Marlon-Ralph

      Thank you

  3. Tip

    You have raised some gd points here. I honestly believe that, for development’s sake, we need to adopt the non-profit mindset where people work together in achieving a common goal. Just imagine if a developer is willing to use his time to develop health apps not because he/she wants to benefit economically from the idea but bcz he sees the potential of his idea in transforming the lives of many people. (And yes the developer should benefit economically from his work.)

    But bcz of the “money first” mentality it is really hard to make progress in developing such ideas. Technology should benefit everyone & not one person. An example would be Elon Musk & how he made Tesla’s patents free for use by any car manufacturer. Musk took a look at the bigger picture – the growth of the green car market – rather than try to limit innovations

    1. reggie

      kkkk, good luck on that! I personally have had to start learning a bit of code myself to produce the minimal viable product. The main challenge really is that as a startup one cant afford to pay a talented developer or any developer at that. I would suggest that one builds an MVP and access startup funding or bootstrap with proceeds to hire a good developer.

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