The Web Foundation’s Mobile Entrepreneurship Initiative stimulates the creation of new, locally relevant services accessible through mobile and Web technologies by transforming entrepreneurs’ ideas into products, and to build a company (start-up) behind these products.
This is the first in a series of blogposts where we catch up with some of the successful start-ups coming from the labs we are working in (Ghana, Kenya, Senegal).
In September of 2011, two Kenyan geeks – Mbugua Njihia and Steve Mutinda – presented their unreleased product to an audience of US angel investors and technology experts – you may recall a blogpost we dedicated to this event at the end of last year. Their product, MedAfrica focuses on delivering basic information about health and medicine to phones — not just smartphones — and enabling people to use that information on their own.
Now, a few months later, we’ve decided to see what they are up to, and to discover more in detail their continued evolution. Steve Mutinda, the CEO of Shimba Technologies (the company behind MedAfrica), answered a number of our questions:
Web Foundation (WF): Hi Steve. A few months ago on our blog we wrote about MedAfrica, describing it as a service to “deliver access to a wide spectrum of health content and services to millions of Africans from the comfort of their mobile phones”. How would you describe MedAfrica?
Steve Mutinda (SM): Not too different from what you just said. MedAfrica is a Medical Services Content Platform that seeks to create health awareness among consumers from the comfort of their mobile phones. It also seeks to increase interactions and purposeful engagements between health practitioners and consumers of their services.
The Shimba guys presenting the first version of MedAfrica, the day after winning Pivot25
WF: It sounds pretty important…
SM: It is, indeed. Many Africans have serious health problems; for example, according to the World Health Organization, more than 30 percent of children under age five show stunted growth. At present in Kenya, only 7,000 doctors serve a nation of 40 million people. But Kenya is rich in mobile phones, with 25 million subscribers (Africa has more than 600 million of them). MedAfrica fills this gap by leveraging the mobile phone. It’s a one-stop shop for health related information important to saving lives. It provides important health information ranging from First Aid – the basic tips, symptoms checker, drugs, doctors – to a list of all registered doctors categorized by specialty, to Hospitals – providing a list of all hospitals including maps to their locations, to sharing Diet tips and Alerts from a variety of important sources.
WF: There is a vast potential user base out there, from what you tell me. Have you managed to attract many users already? What are the main categories of users?
SM: MedAfrica currently has
40,000 57,000 downloads (figure updated on 13th of March 2012) through existent stores such as Nokia, Safaricom and Android Market.
WF: How did you do it?
SM: There has been good buzz around, and a lot of relevant promotion. Nokia has played a major role on this: firstly, they supported us with the launch of MedAfrica by sponsoring the event. They also highlighted the product on their Nokia store providing 31,000 downloads. Also other partners and companies have been crucial to this: Safaricom has highlighted the app on their landing page; this has provided us with 25,000 downloads. We also had features in magazines, blogs and social media such as Twitter & Facebook. The health partners have also played a role in creating awareness of the app as a promotion of their own services.
WF: One of the key things for a start-up is to discover what new value you could provide to your (potential) customers and users. How are you working to discover what this value ? Are you involving them in the design and development process?
SM: We use the activations as a way to start engaging with users. On top of that we have interviewed the public, medical practitioners and other players in the health ecosystem on their needs in terms of medical content they require to be made easily available to them.
WF: Can you give us some hint of how you plan to reach sustainability? What is the business model of MedAfrica?
SM: We have worked quite a lot on this aspect, and I think this is one of the reasons that led us to win Pivot25 (http://www.webfoundation.org/2011/06/pivot25-day-2/ ) last year. For the moment, we have seen that the most significant revenue-generating activities come from sponsored advertisements and subscriptions . For ads, we target all the players in the health environment – ranging from insurance firms to hospitals and pharmaceuticals – to be advertisers on our application.
WF: You launched a few months ago. The cool thing about being a start-up is that you learn a lot, and the reality after you launch is often different from what you assumed before. What have you learned in the months since the launch?
SM: We expected an immediate uptake by doctors to get listed on the platform for a fee, which a substantial number did not accept. The main issue was the risk involved in giving out their phone numbers. You may not know it, but Kenya has been hit recently by many cases of fraud happening via the mobile phone through calls and SMS, so doctors are just a bit skeptical for the moment.
Photo by Stephen Brashear - Attribution CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
WF: So, did you have to change anything with your strategy?
SM: Yes. We’ve modified our business model to change the revenue streams, as a consequence of the low uptake in doctors’ interest in paying a fee. This stream will be included once a threshold of user downloads is reached and doctors see the cost/benefit to their advantage. We are working on an ad-based model.
WF: Any other significant challenges you are facing?
SM: The lack of sufficient funds is obviously a main issue that we have faced since the beginning. Being at the mLab reduced the need for this, but it’s still a need. But it’s not only that. Considering that our goal is to be able to provide valuable content that covers the entire health spectrum, finding providers and partners is a challenge, especially if they haven’t heard about you before. This also means that some of the resources (cash, time) need to be allocated towards this, and here we are back at the initial lack of funding. It’s a bit of a spiral.
WF: What’s next for MedAfrica?
SM: The immediate plans for MedAfrica is the recruitment of more health service providers and spreading across the continent. For instance, we are getting a health partner that will ensure hand-holding of patients from the app to the hospitals. In the long term, we want to integrate with health facilities systems and also the deployment of back-end solutions for them to complement MedAfrica, such as OpenMRS.
WF: Finally, what’s the significance of mLab East Africa for MedAfrica?
SM: mLab has assisted us with linkages to skilled people who have helped build both the team and the product. For example, the support on our business plan has been pretty helpful. On top of that, mLab also has been useful with device testing: we couldn’t have ensured a good quality of the final application without testing it on a good number of devices, and the testing facilities of the mLab have been pretty important for this.
If you are curious about MedAfrica, Steve has also recorded a screencast of the application, which you can see below:
Also, you can get the Android application of their service directly from the Android store: market.android.com/details?id=com.shimba.android.med