Kenya Has Mobile Health App Fever

Nairobi startup’s health app surges; Safaricom gives subscribers links to experts for two cents a minute.

Mobile health platforms are fast emerging in Kenya, where one startup’s newly launched mobile health platform is attracting nearly 1,000 downloads daily, and the dominant telecom, Safaricom, has forged a partnership that will give its 18 million subscribers access to doctors.

A World Bank official sees significant promise from such efforts, pointing to the fact that 50 percent of all Kenyan banking is already done on mobile phones—suggesting that the population is ready to go mobile with health care, too.

“In terms of providing basic services through mobile phones on the continent, Kenya is in the lead in many ways, and showing the way,” says Elizabeth Ashbourne, director of global health information forums at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. “Local applications in the health space are absolutely frontier activities.”

Many Kenyans have serious health problems; for example, according to the World Health Organization, more than 30 percent of children under age five show stunted growth. At present, only 7,000 doctors serve a nation of 40 million people. But Kenya is rich in mobile phones, with 25 million subscribers (Africa has more than 600 million of them.)

The new app, called MedAfrica—available for smart phones and less powerful feature phones—is the product of Shimba Technologies, a Nairobi-based company founded by two locally educated entrepreneurs, Stephen Kyalo and Kezia Muoki, with $100,000 in seed money from a European VC.)

Shimba’s business model is straight from Silicon Valley: free content supported by advertising, with future plans to offer premium content for a subscription, and to charge doctors about $10 a month for access to its user base. Of the 25,000 people who have downloaded since the launch in November, 60 percent are “active users,” says Kyalo. Shimba has not yet sold ads or begun trying to get doctors to pay.

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