For most of us, cell phones are about staying in touch. But in Cameroon, they’re helping to save the lives of pregnant women and infants—thanks to the work of a young entrepreneur named Alain Nteff.
Alain is the founder of GiftedMom, a cell phone app that gives pregnant women and new mothers instant access to medical advice to keep themselves and their babies healthy.
This kind of service would be valuable anywhere, but it’s especially useful in Cameroon, where infant and maternal mortality remains stubbornly high. According to the World Health Organization, Cameroon has the 21st highest under-five mortality rate in the world, and the 17th highest maternal mortality rate. Around 56 babies die each day before they are a month old and 45 stillbirths occur every day, according to Unicef.
Growing up in Cameroon, Alain was aware of his country’s health challenges, but he wasn’t planning on a career in healthcare. He studied computer science in college and had dreams of working for a big tech company. That changed in 2013, when he visited a rural health clinic with a friend, Conrad Tankou, who is a doctor in Cameroon. Walking through the clinic’s wards, Alain came face to face for the first time with babies and young mothers dying.
“The question was, ‘How come in this age with a lot of technology, we still have this problem?’” Alain says.
So, he decided to find an answer.
Alain first explored why Cameroon’s maternal and infant mortality rates were so high. One of the biggest challenges, he learned, was a lack of medical resources. In Cameroon, there were less than 2 doctors per 10,000 people. He also discovered that most women from the poorest households—especially in rural areas—weren’t receiving enough medical care during their pregnancies. Many new mothers would not seek postnatal care for their newborns, leaving them without checkups and vaccinations.
Alain knew that while Cameroon may lack many health resources, many of its people did have a piece of technology that was readily available and might make a difference: cell phones. Working with his friend Conrad, Alain decided to develop a cell phone app to help bridge the gap in care for women and children in Cameroon. He started with a simple SMS system that would remind pregnant women and mothers of their next appointments.
Word spread of the app and one by one the number of subscribers grew from a few dozen to more than 200,000 today. Alain also added other features including medical advice for pregnant women and new mothers, including a due date reminder, regular texts with information about the development of their baby, and basic medical advice about vaccinations and good nutrition.
GiftedMom users also can dial a toll-free number or use a text service to get expert health advice and responses to their questions from a team of medical doctors.
“With technology today, we can democratize access to huge numbers of people. A doctor being on the phone can reach many more users than sitting in the hospital,” Alain says.
While most subscribers to GiftedMom currently use basic cell phones and the app’s SMS features, smartphones continue to grow more popular in Cameroon. Smartphone technology has allowed GiftedMom to add graphics, videos, and other content that will be engaging for mothers. GiftedMom is also developing an online community of mothers who can share stories and learn from one another’s experiences giving birth and raising their children. In addition to a small signup charge, GiftedMom generates revenue to manage the app and create content by charging hospitals a small fee when GiftedMom is used to connect them with a mother.
While the popularity of the app is one measure of success, GiftedMom has already had a positive impact on the country’s health through increased vaccinations and hospital visits. At one hospital in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, the number of women coming for vaccinations jumped from 28,000 per year to more than 40,000 per year. In a rural area of northern Cameroon, GiftedMom helped increase the number of moms going to the hospital by over 60 percent.
GiftedMom’s services are especially important now during COVID-19 when healthcare providers are seeking alternatives to in-person visits, when possible, to decrease the risk of spreading the virus.
Now that the app is having an impact in Cameroon, Alain is looking to release it in other countries in Africa where women are also struggling with a lack of health services. He has a goal of reaching millions of mothers with the app in the years to come.
“The problem of maternal mortality and infant death is not just a mom’s issue—it’s a humanitarian issue,” he says. “And it should not just be women fighting for it. That’s why I’m very comfortable being a man in this space because it’s not just for women. It’s for everyone.”