Chief Officer at Vodacom BusinessVuyani Jarana, talks about Vodacom’s expanding mHealth footprint on the African continent and the organisation’s focus on building partnerships with local mHealth developers to digitise the healthcare ecosystem.

Tell us the premise for Vodacom entering the mHealth space.

Vodacom believes that one of the key areas where we can use our mobile network for good is in the healthcare space, specifically mHealth. That’s why we set up Mezzanine, a company that focuses predominately on mHealth. Mezzanine has developed an mHealth platform that enables collaboration, the collection of insights and stock monitoring.

Tell us about the impact of the stock monitoring solution on the overall medicines supply chain.  

Mezzanine’s stock visibility solution is currently being used to track the availability of vaccines in Mozambique and malaria medicine in Tanzania. We’ve seen a marked improvement in some of the Tanzanian clinics using our platform who’ve increased stock availability from as low as 25% to over 95%. We’ve also deployed the solution in South Africa to help monitor medicine for extreme drug resistant TB patients.

It’s important to note that while we supply the solution to enable stock monitoring, the technology itself won’t solve the issue of stock outs. We supply the technology that makes stock monitoring paperless and enables instant visibility of stock levels but the client must still operate the technology. The healthcare worker is responsible for entering the codes for each medicine and managing the stock levels at facility level. At the national level, the system uses interactive forms to provide responsible persons in very senior positions to inform the management of the entire medicine supply chain.

So while the technology is robust, the process of managing stocks with the solution needs a lot of change management, which essentially means that the responsible individuals within the healthcare system must be trained to use it and they must use it constantly. Once the client agrees to work with us we support them with constant training and overall monitoring but they still have to execute it.

Talk to us about the arm of the platform that facilitates clinical insights.

We’ve developed solutions that enable private healthcare practitioners to remotely monitor the health status of their patients. The solution is also applicable to primary healthcare and even occupational health. For example, most companies in the mining sector require their employees to be screened for hearing, etc. by law.  This requires special infrastructure and it takes time to conduct the test. Using our solution, companies can carry out the screening of their workforce in a much simpler and more cost effective way.

The platform also enables community health workers to collect vital signs and essential information from patients using a mobile device. This means there’s a direct conversion of information through a digital platform, allowing clinical professionals to view aggregated data and look at trends in specific regions.

Vodacom has been instrumental in powering start-ups like hearScreen. Can you tell us how that collaboration came about?

It was part of our strategy to find partners to collaborate with in the mHealth or telemedicine space once we’d built the core – the mHealth platform – and began work on some of our own mHealth solutions. In line with the various healthcare strategies we’re involved in, we are always looking to collaborate with specialists who have developed deep insights into their area of speciality, and then take that information and connect it to our platform to create a fully-fledged ecosystem that’s underpinned by the scale of Vodacom’s platform and reach, in terms of mobility, whether it’s mobile data or just basic access using USSD.

We started looking at the telemedicine portfolio to see who had capabilities around hearing screening and that’s how we got involved with hearScreen. Vodacom wants to use this sort of innovative technology to address some of the major social challenges that the country and the continent face, which includes health.

The School’s Health Policy of 2012 has very specific screening requirements for every learner in each grade at every school in the country. Now, whilst the intentions are good, the ability to deliver on these requirements is truncated because of the level of investment necessary, and the availability of the technology to carry out these tests. If you look at hearing screening, for example, traditional testing requires special booths to operate in certain conditions. But with hearScreen you don’t need that booth because you can conduct screening easily using a mobile phone, and you get exactly the same, high accuracy results as if the test had been carried out using the big, expensive booth. So they’re an example of what’s possible and it fits in with our mandate to simplify the delivery of healthcare by using mobility and simple technology.

What process do other start-ups need to follow to be able to collaborate with Vodacom?

We want people to approach us, to talk to us and tell us about their solutions. We want to mobilise ecosystem partners and give them access to our large scale infrastructure and capabilities. But we also know that we can’t do everything, so we aim to collaborate with those who specialise in specific areas. Potential partners undergo a thorough vetting process to ensure that they fit into our strategy and to determine whether there’s a sound commercial model behind their solution. Once we know that, we integrate that partner as part of Vodacom’s offering, and more often than not, we white label the solution and take it to market.

A big focus now is to address the cost of healthcare in the country by simplifying solutions and ensuring that we can support government departments, clinics, healthcare districts, municipalities and healthcare practitioners. Vodacom does that through an enabling platform that gives healthcare professionals clinical insights to help them improve healthcare delivery. We also look at the companies that produce transducers that will, for example, pick up an unborn baby’s heartbeat, which we then integrate into our platform so it can be used by a clinical professional for data analysis and can be accessed from anywhere in the world to pick up trends or identify a high-risk pregnancy.

So currently, we provide the platform to enable all of this but the next step is to mobilise the full ecosystem.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs and start-ups trying to design a successful mHealth app?

Firstly, the app must address a particular issue as well as the customer’s needs. Secondly, you have to be very clear about how users will consume the service and use the app itself, because more often than not the application in development is trying to give access to a particular service that is already being facilitated by a main provider. So it’s important to understand how the value chain works and how your app will enable a particular organisation to deliver services to its clients, because your app can be a means to an end on its own.

You’ll either be providing a channel to access information, collect information or a transaction platform. In the B to C kind of relationship, whether it’s government or consumer or a product company to a customer, you are mediating between two parties. You therefore need to be clear where the commercial aspect sits; is it a paid model where customers are required to pay a service fee on an ongoing basis? Or is the app just providing access to an organisation’s product or services?Often the recreational apps that are developed don’t operate on a user-pay model but more on a broader ecosystem that creates opportunity for advertising on an advertising model.

It’s vital that people understand how their app will be commercialised and that is often not clear when they start out. We work with partners to help them be clear about how to commercialise it, when to develop and make sure the solution serves the customer and end user.

What is next for Vodacom in the healthcare space?

We are currently engaging with governments across the continent to make sure that they are able to use to our platform. We think that our solution will address healthcare challenges on the continent and will help reduce the burden on healthcare, but it needs both leadership and determined people to say that they understand this is an issue, and they’re willing to engage with us in finding and leveraging solutions. So as these conversations evolve we will soon see more projects from across the continent and even outside of Africa.

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This article has been revised for accuracy.