In northern Tanzania, where distances between villages are vast, and less than a dozen ambulances service about 2 million people, being pregnant can be a death sentence. High-risk expectant mothers regularly fail to get medical attention because they can’t get to a hospital in time.
But a combination of an Uber-like taxi service and M-Pesa–a popular mobile payment platform–is helping to cut the rate of maternal and infant mortality. Through a partnership between the Vodafone Foundation and USAID, the Mobilising Maternal Health program connects mothers in need of going to the hospital with private taxis, which will transport them free of charge. Using M-Pesa, the program then pays participating drivers a set fee directly through their cell phones. The Vodafone Foundation estimates that the program, which launched last winter, could save as many as 2,700 lives per year.
About 80 cars are participating across two districts so far, says Ntuli Kapologwe, a doctor in the city of Shinyanga, who oversees the project. He says private cars have long been used in emergencies, but the funding from USAID and the Vodafone Foundation, plus the use of M-Pesa, has helped catalyze and formalize the practice.
“People were organizing themselves before. So we thought maybe we can use that [idea] to cover the entire district,” he tells Co.Exist. “The ambulance coverage in the country is quite inadequate, so we have to opt for some other means to strengthen the system.”
M-Pesa, launched in Kenya 10 years ago this February, is now available in 10 countries, including Albania, Romania, Ghana, and India. It’s credited with driving economic activity in rural regions and improving financial inclusion. “Tanzania is largely a cash-based economy and banks are limited to urban areas. M-Pesa enables rural populations to access financial services,” Andrew Dunnett, director of the Vodafone Foundation, tells Co.Exist. “The immediacy and transparency of M-Pesa benefits the taxi drivers as well as potentially saving the lives of women.” The Mobilising Maternal Health program also trains community health workers and clinical staff via a mobile phone app: To date, 250 community health workers have been trained, and they’ve conducted over 100,000 visits to pregnant and post-partum women.
Kapologwe says mobile coverage can still be spotty in some remote areas and that reaching women during the rainy season is difficult no matter how good the phone connection. But with more funding and government support, he hopes to spread the “ambulance taxi” service throughout the region and perhaps further afield–not a far-fetched idea, given that 70% of the world’s population will have smartphones by 2020. “We want to see how we can get more partners, so we will have enough evidence to say that ‘now we can roll out to the entire country,'” he says.