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This Clever System For Dumb Phones Ensures Rural Clinics Don’t Run Out Of Medicines

Reliefwatch is for pharmacies and clinics now, but the idea could more broadly help re-supply remote places.

This Clever System For Dumb Phones Ensures Rural Clinics Don’t Run Out Of Medicines
[Top Photos: Gelpi JM, bestv via Shutterstock]

Daniel Yu got the idea for Reliefwatch–a clever inventory management that combines dumb phones with cloud databases–while on a trip to Egypt. Visiting a pharmacy in the Red Sea town where he was staying, he saw how quickly stores would run low on basic supplies and he decided to do something about it. Back at the University of Chicago, he worked on the first software and became so excited about the idea that he dropped out of his degree altogether. He hasn’t looked back since.

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“I realized that classes were interesting and great. But there was other stuff out there I want to do,” he says.

Reliefwatch is designed to solve a key problem for medical programs in rural places: that clinics and stores will run out of supplies because their suppliers are unaware of their shortages. It works like this. Designated workers in those clinics get automated calls twice a week at 5 p.m. The auto-voice asks how many of each drug the clinic has in stock, and the worker punches the number into the phone’s keypad. That information is then transferred to a inventory management system, so the supplier can keep up.

“The problem we focus on is distribution centers that don’t have access to computers or the Internet, and therefore don’t have an inventory management system in place,” says Yu, who’s still in his early 20s. “Suppliers don’t know they’ve run out, so when people come into the clinics, they’re out of luck.”

Reliefwatch, in other words, acts as a bridge between the low-tech world of dumb phones and advanced back-end systems created by Oracle and other companies.

Reliefwatch currently sells its software service in five countries: Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Kenya and Uganda. Its clients include Uganda’s Ministry of Health, which is using it for a vaccination program, and Relief Brigades, the student-led international NGO. Yu himself is currently based in Washington D.C. at the new Halcyon Incubator.

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In fact, the University of Chicago didn’t take Yu’s dropping out too badly. It gave the entrepreneur free office space on campus, plenty of mentor support, and even a little investment. ReliefWatch is now closing a $700,000 seed round with a range of investors, from small funds to groups more focused on “social returns.”

The platform could be used for a wide variety of last mile deliveries, not just drugs and bandages. Wrigley is already delivering chewing gum in Kenya using the system, for instance. While most of the world still doesn’t have the internet, inventory management based around cheap phones makes more sense.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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