Mercy (pictured with Maeghan Ray Orton from Medic Mobile) at UMCom workshop in Malawi

Posted by TechChange alumnus, Neelley Hicks, ICT4D Director of United Methodist Communications.

Mobile phones seem to be everywhere in Africa, and they’re keeping people in touch with health, education, banking, and community empowerment.

“Email and Facebook are problems…but this text messaging – it’s no problem,” says Betty Kazadi Musau who lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

In early August 2013, I spent the week with Mercy Chikhosi Nyirongo, who provides healthcare in communities in Malawi. Recently, she took an online course through TechChange called “Mobile Phones for Public Health.” She wondered what impact mobile phones could have on her health program in Madisi, so she conducted a test.

The problem: HIV+ men were not coming to the support group and health management classes.

The test: Separate into two control groups – one would receive text reminders about the next meeting and the other would not.

The results: Out of the 20 who did not receive text messages, five attended. Out of the 30 who did receive text messages, 25 attended and were standing in queue when she arrived.

One client said, “You reached me where I was.” This isn’t a small thing. Often community health workers walk miles to find someone only to learn they are away. But the mobile phones stay with the person – making them much easier to reach.

Mercy conducted this test directly through her mobile phone and it took her nearly all day. But with FrontlineSMS, she can enter mobile numbers easily for group messaging. She said, “After the online course, the UMCom workshop (in Blantyre), and these conversations, my eyes have become wide open.”

Join us in our next round of Mobiles for International Development and mHealth: Mobiles for Public Health online courses! 

To read the original post on Neelley’s blog, “Stories in ICT4D”, please click here.

We’re excited to partner with the mHealth Alliance yet again to offer our Mobile Phones for Public Health for open enrollment. And we think it matters: When it comes to IC4D (or M4D) projects, even the best technology is often not as helpful as the latest best practices. Patty Mechael, the Executive Director of the mHealth Alliance, was recently quoted in an NYT article about lessons learned from the past ten years of “mobile phones for public health” concluded:

“The tech is only as good as the people it is connecting or system it’s connected to,” Mechael said. ”We can get excited about the shiny new object, but the real impact comes from thinking about the cultural and professional context in which it’s being implemented.”

That same article cast a skeptical eye on the impact of many mHealth programs to date, but singled out Project Mwana as being successful on a large scale in Zambia and Malawi for testing babies of H.I.V.-positive women. When asked to describe what makes Mwana work, Erica Kochi, the co-leader of tech innovation for UNICEF (and confirmed speaker in our upcoming course) described: “Incredible simplicity….It’s not trying to replace the health information system.  For its users, it makes things easier rather than adding more

Nick Martin interviewing Merrick Schaefer

mHealth Interview with Merrick Schaefer on Project Mwana

complexity to an already difficult, challenging health system.”

But mHealth solutions aren’t as simple as scaling successful programs irrespective of context. It requires creating an ongoing dialogue between public health professionals, the medical community, technologists, and government funders.

To that end, we’ve attempted to not just build a successful-project showcase, but a conversation that includes the following speakers and organizations:

  • Robert Fabricant, Frog Design
  • Gustav Praekelt, Praekelt Foundation
  • Alain Labrique, JHU University
  • Sarah Emerson, Center for Disease Control Tanzania
  • Erika Cochi, UNICEF Innovation
  • Yaw Anokwa, Nafundi
  • Martin Were, Regenstrief Institute; Hamish Fraser, Partners in Health
  • Armstrong Takang, Federal Ministry of Health
  • Kirsten Gagnaire, MAMA Global
  • Lesley-Anne Long, mPowering Frontline Workers; Sandhya Rao, USAID

Class starts June 3rd. Visit the mHealth course page to apply and reserve your spot today. Seats are filling up quickly. We hope that you’ll join the conversation!

This is a guest post by TechChange alumna Julia Nagel.

If you’re interested in learning with TechChange, check out our next course on Mobile Phones for Public Health. Class starts June 3. Apply now

In December 2012, I traveled with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to Zambia and Malawi to shoot videos on women’s health. Armed with three cameras – a Panasonic HMC, a Canon Rebel T3i, and a Canon 5d Mark II – we sought to capture the voices of African women on issues that affect their lives and the lives of countless women in their country: maternal mortality, cervical cancer, and family planning. Why three cameras you might ask? My fellow videographer and I both agreed that while the Panasonic HMC is a highly versatile camera, its look does not compare to that of a nice DSLR.

With the DSLR cameras, colors are more saturated, images are more vivid, and you get a nice crisp focus on your subject (if you’re able to manage how sensitive that camera’s focus ring is) that nicely blurs the background. The DSLR does have two major downfalls though. One, it does not operate well in low light (a major problem during Malawi’s rainy season). Two, there’s no good way to capture audio. Thus, the
Panasonic was used for every shoot alongside the DSLRs.


In this video, Joyce Banda – the first female President of Malawi – talks about the importance of women’s health and empowerment, particularly in Africa and in her country. The interview was both inspiring to shoot and to edit. The two cameras we used in this video are the Panasonic HMC for the wide shot, and the Cannon 5d Mark II for the tight shot. The video was edited in Final Cut Pro and the cameras were matched in Final Cut using an incredibly helpful program called Plural Eyes. To read
more about the interview, please visit: Also, stay tuned to for the additional videos that will be released from our trip, due out in February.


Cross-posted from the TC104: Global Innovations for Digital Organizing course we ran last May. If you are interested in mobile organization and censorship/privacy in the 21st century, consider enrolling in the next round in January. 


Credit: Duncan 2012

Most of you will be familiar with the philosophical thought experiment, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well over recent weeks I’ve been mulling over the much less catchy or succinct question of “If a person tweets/updates their status/sends a text/blogs and no one responds, did they really make a sound?” It probably won’t be making it onto a philosophy syllabus anytime soon, but hear me out…

I recently travelled to Malawi to trial a social accountability approach designed to improve the quality of rural schools. The purpose was to help adolescent girls analyse their problems and provide an opportunity for them to raise these with school management to find collaborative solutions. I found it both sad and hopeful when some of the girls explained that nobody had ever asked for their opinions – they saw this as a chance to finally speak. A voice was incredibly important to these young women and self-expression seemed to have real value in itself. But I wonder if voice is enough. Doesn’t school management also need to value and respond to girls’ opinions? I kept asking: If speaking out doesn’t lead to action, do we just create false expectations and disillusionment?

During TC104 I’ve thought about this a lot. The internet and mobile phones offer so many opportunities for voice and reaching out – to other citizens but also to people in power. But I question what other elements are needed to ensure that voice leads to dialogue, and dialogue leads to responsive actions and tangible development changes.

   Credit: Plan

I came to this course wanting to know about the digital tools/approaches that could support young people’s meaningful participation in social accountability initiatives (for an explanation check out pages 10-11 of Plan’s Governance Learning Guide). I was interested in how technology could leverage their voices and strengthen the interaction and responsiveness between them and their state to create better services, like health and education. As such the expert interviews with Barak Hoffman and Darko Brkan were among the most interesting for me. The Maji Matone project in Tanzania and the accountability and transparency work by Dosta! in Bosnia were excellent examples of digital media’s potential use to increase responsiveness of governments to citizens’ voices.

However, the Tanzanian example acted as a cautionary tale of how projects must recognise wider socio-political contexts in which they seek to work. That project seemed to offer a simple technology-enabled way of directly linking citizens’ voices to government action on water points. However, as this blog post explains the target communities were not used to demanding their rights to services and seemed sceptical of the government’s ability or will to respond. In addition, in a tight-knit local community people were scared of being seen as trouble makers and being critical of those in power. As a result they saw little benefit, and indeed some risk, in exercising their voice through the ICT channels that were offered.

        Credit: Plan

In contrast Darko’s post explains the approaches used by Dosta! to first strengthen a weak Bosnian civil society. What interests me most, though, are Dosta!’s tactics to encourage responsiveness from the supply side through mixing digital and traditional tools for accountabilityThey were able to leverage power over politicians through the tangible threat of removal through democratic elections and in 2006 discredited the Prime Minister by exposing his corruption through the media. It was the media which again played a strong role in promoting the fact-checking website Istinomjer with further impact on election discourse. This active media environment and electoral accountability gives additional power to digital information and can help turn transparency into action.

These examples underline that creating opportunities for voice and participation doesn’t automatically lead to accountability and tangible changes. A whole host of reasons may stop citizens raising their voices or governments from answering – a key one being lack of effective digital and traditional feedback loops. The workshops from Dhairya and Rob provided lots of ideas for integrating technology into our social accountability projects and I’m excited to share these with colleagues and get to work. But the Maji Matone example reminds me not to lose sight of the need to analyse existing communication, political and social environments before getting too carried away with the technology.


Jennifer Doherty is a Governance Programme Officer working in the Programme Support and Impact Unit of Plan UK, an international development charity promoting the rights of children.