Kenyan ICT startup spreads wings to Ebola-hit West Africa

Echo Mobile co-founder Jeremy Gordon at his Nairobi office last week. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA

What you need to know:

  • Sierra Leone government uses Echo Mobile’s platform to collect data from communities and track spread of disease.

Little is known of the start up Echo Mobile which is located along Olenguruone Road in Nairobi.

It is hard to imagine that the social enterprise, which has already started making an impact across Africa, is run by a small team of seven.

For the last four weeks Echo Mobile has been running a pilot programme in Sierra Leone, in partnership with IBM Africa’s research unit and regional telecommunication firm Airtel, to fight Ebola.

Echo Mobile is working with local communities to track the spread of Ebola in one of the most affected countries in the world.

Since the virus broke out in Sierra Leone in May, 3,896 suspected cases have been reported. Of these 3,389 were confirmed positive while 1,281 people died of the disease.

Community members use the Echo Mobile platform to send information via SMS to an Airtel short code.

Echo Mobile then puts it in a format that can easily be analysed by the Sierra Leone Open  Government Initiative through IBM’s research facility. This allows medical teams to be dispatched to assist affected families and communities.

The citizen engagement and research system has enabled the government to improve efforts of combating the disease.

Echo Mobile co-founder and product director Jeremy Gordon told the Business Daily that use of the technology to leverage on provision of healthcare services in the continent is one of the ways to ensure universal access.

“We’re working to make sure that the stream of messages from patients, health workers and the public can be used to augment the response effort and provide a direct and near real-time view of the situation on the ground,” he said.

If the programme is successfully implemented and the overall impact assessed, the three partners plan to expand to other countries where the disease is still endemic.

“What is happening in West Africa is attesting to what is happening in healthcare globally and how the  sector has been able to benefit  from both digital and mobile technology to get information to and from healthcare  providers,” he said.

Echo Mobile (formerly mSwali) was created in 2010 by Kenya-based American developers Gordon and Rachel Brooks as a tool to assist micro-financier Juhudi Kilimo conduct short surveys, collect data and actively interact with farmers.

Variety of solutions

After a year-and-a-half of being housed by the micro-financier, the duo saw more potential for the platform and set out on their own.

Since then the platform has grown to offer a variety of mobile communications solutions, apart from the original text-based system which allows organisations to receive real time feedback.

Although Ms Brooks relocated to the US in 2012, she still plays an active role in the running of the business as one of its directors.

Mr Gordon said that the name change early last year was informed by their decision to expand into the regional and global markets.

“mSwali was a convenient name because  many  people  could  relate with it, not just in Kenya but the larger East African region. But at the time M-Shwari  was also getting into the market and there was a lot of confusion between the two so we opted to rebrand to  Echo Mobile.”

Apart from their ongoing work in West Africa, their client list is quite long having worked with Mkopa Solar, Kenya Market Trust, Jacaranda Health, Niko Hapa and Hellen Keller International as well as non-profit organisations.

One of the projects that Echo Mobile is currently working on, together with Unicef and the Ministry of Education, is building a child-friendly public schools  management system.

“It’s one an exciting project because we collect data  that is important to the  quality of education on the  ground. It is collected by text so we have all this information  coming in from parents, teachers and students and all this is being filtered and fed into the system through  which stakeholders  can  make better  informed  decisions,” Mr Gordon said.

Ms Zoe Cohen, the startup’s chief executive, said that most of their clients are sourced  through referrals by existing clients.

Disseminate information

“We enable organisations to set up automated two-way conversations that collect data, disseminate information and engage respondents in complex and deeply customisable ways ranging from SMS to an Android application, to computer based web entry,” she said.

Once clients register on the platform they can log into the website and design a simple  three-question survey centred around the  kind of data  that they want to collect.

The questions are  accessed  by their clientele  either  by a  USSD code or via text. Echo charges a subscription fee of Sh5,000 per month and Sh2 per outgoing SMS, if one uses the private short code option.

The message sender bears the cost, rather than the recipient. Apart from providing surveys, clients with field officers can use a customised Android application to collect data from the grassroots in real time.

It is also possible for organisations to have short codes through which their clients can register products as a way of fighting counterfeits and also provide customer service through scheduled messaging.

Mr Gordon said that the firm also maintains short codes for various mobile service providers. At the moment they maintain 15 short codes for clients as well as two toll-free lines in Sierra Leone and Tanzania.

Their Tanzania project involves receiving data about water levels of several watering holes which pastoralists depend on during dry seasons.

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