Gustav Praekelt and mobile phones for social good

The impact of the cell phone and social technology continues to grow and grow – this report by MANDY DE WAAL on The Daily Maverick shows how social entrepreneurship and corporate interests can be married

Just about everyone has a mobile phone (a.k.a. cellphone), which makes it the ultimate device for driving business revenues, advertising and reaching consumers. But how can pervasive mobile technology be put to use for social good? Gustav Praekelt might just have some answers. By MANDY DE WAAL.

After the Mbeki regime’s epic failure of the on HIV and Aids, President Jacob Zuma initiated a new movement for the prevention, care and support of the epidemic. And not a moment too soon, because South Africa has one of the largest number of HIV infections in the world, set at some 5.7 million, according to UNAIDS statistics for 2009.

The government’s programme now includes the treatment of HIV with antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. Close on a million people were treated with ARVs in 2009, but the effort is bedevilled by drug supply, resources and capacity. Of course, poor governance, bad management and a lack of service delivery in the health sector also exact their toll.

ARVs improve the wellbeing and quality of life of people who have HIV, but the problem is that there is a drop-off in the use of these drugs. In some cases this is because of death, but often people on the treatment start to feel better and consequently stop taking their medication.

This is a problem Gustav Praekelt wanted to address. Praekelt was working in the mobile sector and became convinced that the pervasiveness of cellular devices presented a real opportunity for transformation in Africa. To convert his dream into reality, he set up a technology incubator called thePraekelt Foundation to implement mobile solutions for social good. That was five years ago. Today his programmes have reached some 50 million people in 15 countries across Africa.

One of the first problems Praekelt tackled was using mobile technology to make a difference in the lives of people with HIV and Aids. The first application the Praekelt Foundation rolled out was a text alert system that used “please call me messages” to remind people to take their ARVs. “We were the first organisation to use the ‘please call me’ texts for non-profit use. To date, we’ve sent out a billion messages which is the largest use of telephony for HIV and Aids dissemination,” says Praekelt.

What’s novel about this approach is the foundation builds a low-cost platform that delivers a service that is free to end-users and helps drive impressive results in ensuring people stay on ARV treatment.

“The incredible thing about mobile interventions is that everything can be tracked. The term for people who stop taking their medication is ‘loss to follow up’. In Gauteng, when we started with the text system, the loss to follow up figure was about 30%, which is quite a high percentage. The loss to follow up has now dropped to 4% or 5% for the province.”

Praekelt is at pains to explain that the free text service isn’t the sole driver of getting people to take ARVs continuously. “There are lots of other reasons why the loss to follow up has dropped including the big effort made by clinics. However, a large problem is that many people who receive the free health service feel they can’t insist on better service if they aren’t treated that well or the service isn’t that great. Many feel they can’t insist on better treatment.”

Watch Gustav Praekelt speak about Africa’s cellular cusp at TEDxStellenbosch:

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