In early 2014, every major network across the globe was discussing the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. At one point, there were more experts on CNN discussing Ebola in the U.S. than there were people with Ebola in the U.S. Then, suddenly, everyone stopped talking about the disease and the aftermath, until a new Ebola case emerged recently in Sierra Leone, where the country’s last patient was discharged a week prior. As of August 23, 2015, 28,041 Ebola cases and 11,302 deaths had been reported worldwide.
Will the latest Ebola death ignite another media frenzy? Probably not, but two things are certain: The Ebola recovery process is far from over for the people in West Africa, and it takes local voices to expand consciousness around a global issue.
Guinea natives and sisters Aissata Camara and Mariama Camara-Petrolawicz are living proof of this. In 2008, they cofounded There Is No Limit Foundation (TINLF), an organization empowering women and children in developing communities through entrepreneurship programs, education, and sustainable development. While residing in New York City, the two entrepreneurs are active with the UN and shine a light on their own personal stories of growing up in Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world, as well as stories of the community they continue to work with on the ground.
Since inception, the foundation has served over 20,800 people, but not without challenges. Like Sierra Leone and Liberia, Guinea is still in a state of recovery from when the Ebola struck the region in late 2013. TINFL’s programs were directly affected by the Ebola crisis.
In Guinea alone, more than 3,790 people were infected by Ebola and more than 2,520 people died from the disease. When the health of a nation’s people is jeopardized, every building block of that country suffers. Specifically, women entrepreneurs saw their businesses slow down due to limited opportunities for travel and fear of contamination.
In this post-Ebola recovery time, TINLF’s goal is to rebuild health systems in Guinea and other parts of West Africa through strategic partnerships with hospital administrations, supplying health care facilities with medical equipment and tools, and streamlining access to medical information.The Camaras are targeting mobile technology to help create these opportunities.
“A key factor in the spread of Ebola was the lack of communication capabilities,” says Aissata. “The villages that were first affected [by the disease] are remote, and it was difficult to reach them in a timely manner to spread awareness information.”
She adds that proper communication technology could have also played a role in tracking people that had contracted Ebola or had been in contact with the disease.
“Having access to reliable mobile technology can prevent another outbreak, as it can enable health workers to send information about new diseases, as well as allow health workers to stay in contact with their counterparts in Conakry, the capital of Guinea,” says Aissata.
“I spoke with health workers who worked in the capital and went on missions to the rural villages. Lack of connectivity proved to be problematic for them,” she explained. “They said their work was delayed because they had to wait to bring back the data they acquired to the capital. According to them, this delay was very costly.”
At the height of the Ebola crisis, the communication technology and services provider Ericsson rushed to provide connectivity for frontline health care workers in West Africa. In doing this, the company illustrated that even for a multinational tech firm, there’s still a first time for everything.
Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, vice president of sustainability and corporate responsibility at Ericsson, said the Ebola outbreak marked the first time the company’s disaster response program, which has been part of the UN’s emergency response cluster for 15 years, had worked on a disease crisis, let alone one that saw doctors dying as quickly as patients.
Until the Ebola outbreak, the team had responded to earthquakes and disaster conflicts, but never health. However, that didn’t stop them from having an impact. Since being called to action, Ericsson has connected close to 1,500 humanitarian aid workers and wired 75 emergency treatment units.
Ericsson also provided 2,000 smartphones preloaded with health and data aggregating apps for community health workers. Weidman-Grunewald echoes Aissata’s thoughts on the importance of timely data exchanges.
“We didn’t want to send these phones to the field where people are in the middle of a crisis and have poor bandwidth, while trying to download and install apps about how to collect data,” says Weidman-Grunewald. “In the middle of that crisis, there were so many delays and errors. There were human errors collecting data. There were paper-based systems. People had to get from rural areas into the capital and report health data. What we did is we shortcut it, and with smartphones, the community health workers were able to basically map in data in real time.”
If connectivity and mobile technology can be of value in combatting one disease, it can be effective in fighting them all. In addition to Ebola eduction, TINLF is currently looking at ways the organization can use mobile devices to spread information about maternal health to communities.
“We want to teach them about the various ways they can keep their families healthy through proper hygiene and sanitation practices,” says Aissata. “We want to help spread information quickly by texting community members about issues that are currently affecting them. However, implementing some of these technologies can be costly. We have the local knowledge, and we require strong partnerships.”
In a world where a number of mobile-for-development programs suffer from “pilotitus,” or crashing and burning before getting off the ground, due to failure to adapt to the needs of local people, partnerships are imperative. In this same world, every now and then an initiative is able to build from a golden nugget that’s already put in place.
Case in point: Qualcomm Wireless Reach provided a medical record platform and infrastructure for maternal health clinics in Nigeria to address maternal and infant death rates. They used this same service to reach health care professionals about Ebola.
“When Ebola broke out, we said, ‘Wait a minute, we already have an existing platform that reaches these frontline health care workers, and it turns out that a lot of them don’t even get information about the Ebola outbreak in time to take action,” says Kyle Moss, program manager at Qualcomm Wireless Reach.
From there, Moss and her team used the platform to educate the clinic workers on what to do if they saw Ebola symptoms. Since the network was already established, they were able to rapidly respond in a matter of days and replicate the service in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Moss says Qualcomm Wireless Reach is open to discussion about other locations, and that the program could easily be transported to a place like Guinea.
And Guinea is a good place to go.
“Guinea is an untapped country with a lot of potential due to natural resources and the passion of its citizens,” said Aissata. “We have a lot of young people who have finished their education but they have little to no opportunities to find a job. These are talented individuals who would give their all for the opportunity to practice what they have learned. Guinea is also the hub of the Mano River, where many Sierra Leoneans and Liberians live. Hence, working in Guinea is an opportunity to reach three countries at once.”
That last quote is just one example of many revealing why it takes local voices to expand consciousness around a global issue.