MAKAU: Why the mobile phone holds the key to driving social change in Africa


Ideas & Debate

A health app launched last year to enable Kenyans access medical practitioners. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

An estimated 500 million people in Africa, half of the continent’s population, will have access to a mobile phone by 2020. This feat would cement the place of the device as a key influencer of culture and society on the continent.

Already, mobile phones are shaping our choices of food, providing financial access to the underserved and diagnosing ailments with accompanying medical recommendations to boot.

The device nonetheless has had its downsides such as accelerating the spread of fake news, contributing to rising addictions among impressionable youth and giving criminals a new tool to defraud unsuspecting victims.

Yet for the world’s youngest population, the mobile phone presents an opportunity to break out of the poverty trap and re-write a new chapter in Africa’s growth story. Its biggest influence and legacy will, however, be to successfully engineer large-scale behaviour change to address the continent’s pressing social challenges.

But how can this happen? For instance, how would we unleash a series of interactive and sometimes automated text and voice messages to lower the prevalence of pneumonia in Kenya, raise the literacy rates amongst the youth or reduce the mother-to-child HIV transmission rate in Uganda?

The answer to this is abstract. Core in this is a theory that suggests that human behaviour stems from an intention that is influenced by our personal attitudes, approval by society and perceived controls.

Understanding what psychologists refer to as the theory of planned behaviour has, for instance, led to major breakthroughs in health communication, with the mobile phone as the core platform for catalysing social change.

The power of mobile phones in health communication is perhaps best illustrated by the WelTel Kenya 1 project which was a clinical trial of antiretroviral therapy for HIV-infected adults and piloted in three clinics in the country.

Patients in the intervention group received weekly text message reminders and were required to respond to a clinic nurse within 48 hours. Research documented by the University of Nairobi indicates the primary trials reported a significant increase in treatment adherence, which was a huge win for mobile phone health communication interventions.

Similarly, Project Masiluleke or Project M in South Africa received global recognition in 2008 for the largest ever use of the mobile phone in raising HIV awareness, testing and treatment among high-risk populations.

Specialised SMS texts curated in local languages and for cultural relevance were sent out to millions of South Africans every day for one year, urging them to call confidential lines to address concerns about HIV and Aids. The impact of Project M is still being analysed. But its effectiveness in the use of the mobile phone as a tool to raise awareness remains undisputed.

Both WelTel Kenya 1 and Project M provide a blueprint for sparking behaviour change among communities through the mobile phone.

But to succeed in this space, organisations and brands that are seeking to unleash the power of the mobile phone need to consider a number of factors.

First, they must understand the channels and the content that would be most relevant to the target audience. This calls for deep insights about the right moment to push out planned messages.

For the constantly connected generation, content is personal. Understanding local nuances and curating content that is location- and language specific can make the difference in the success or failure of a mobile-first behaviour change campaigns.

The manner in which the content is presented should consider basics such as the size of the mobile phone screen and the functionalities a device offers.

Every mobile content should be shareable. The content or the messages that are created for mobile should appeal and even incentivise individuals to share and influence behaviour within their communities of interest.

And finally, the content should be delivered intuitively and flawlessly to meet the increasingly high expectations of the modern mobile consumer.

The troves of data from mobile devices can determine not only where audiences are but where they have been and predict where they are likely to go. If used well, a location data-targeted message, for instance, can increase the chances of capturing an audience’s fleeting attention.

Traditional media choices — in particular TV and radio — still have extensive reach across the continent. They will remain an affordable and effective way to spread awareness of organisations and brands in Africa.

But the promise of the mobile phone is to provide relevant content to audiences anytime and anywhere. Africa is well on its way to becoming a mobile first continent. For Kenya it is time to sustainably catalyse social change through the mobile phone.

JAMES MAKAU, Partner and Co-founder at Oxygene MCL

By Kenyan Digest

The Kenyan Digest Team