In November 2018, Mali Health officially became a partner in the WomenConnect Challenge (WCC) – a USAID initiative intended to “bridge the digital gender divide.” Here’s a full summary of our pilot project.

For so many reasons, this was an unlikely place to find ourselves; it was not something we had planned. Partnership, collaboration, and learning can be funny in that sense – they often lead to unexpected places. The journey to become one of nine WCC partners has been enlightening, challenging, and meaningful. It’s a journey that we are fortunate to be on. This is new territory for Mali Health.

Perhaps you are now wondering: what is a digital divide? and what does that have to do with mothers and children, or health?  Confusion, and even skepticism, are rational responses. I will be the first to admit that the connections between our community health work, this opportunity in particular, and the fascination with technology/innovation/social entrepreneurship in general, could seem tenuous. This project seems to be a distraction from our mission. Fair criticisms, and thoughts I myself have held.

But, we’re continuing on this journey – and these concerns no longer keep me up at night. Here are five reasons why:

We’re focused on women.

 Women are the heart of what we do. They are the focus of our daily work because they are at the core of our mission and strategy. Women are the key to improving maternal and child health in Mali because they are the ones who are most affected by access to and quality of care. You’ll remember that access and quality are our two top priorities in community-level maternal and child health. Women are the care-providers to children and the care-seekers for their families. They are the ones who determine where, when and how their family needs to seek healthcare.

As you may have guessed, WomenConnect is also completely focused on women. We all know that women do not have the same opportunities to reach their full potential, but have you thought about what it means for them not to have access to the same technologies? As the world becomes more digital, what does it mean for women to not have equal access to the internet? Could that impact their health and wellbeing? WomenConnect thinks these are questions worth asking and answering (so do we).

And we’re in good company. In their 2019 Annual Letter, Bill and Melinda Gates described nine of their top surprises as they have pursued their philanthropy and work. Guess what #9 was?

Mobile phones are most powerful in the hands of the poorest women.”

– 2019 Annual Letter, Bill and Melinda Gates

Say what? We start a project to learn if and how cell phones using a voice-based technology can help the poorest women in Bamako better meet their health needs… and two of the most towering figures in global health are talking about poor women and cell phones?! On the Colbert Late Show?!

If it makes sense to Bill and Melinda Gates – that’s good enough for us. 

This project allows us to use technology and engage in innovation and social entrepreneurship in an appropriate, measured way.

The potential for innovation and solo social entrepreneurs to save the world is another topic for another day – but let’s just say this approach feels overrepresented in our field at the moment. Not every health problem (especially in community and/or maternal and child health) is a challenge just waiting to be hacked or solved by the right technology or business model, which can then be taken to scale to save the world.

However, there are some very amazing engineers and entrepreneurs out there who may very well revolutionize the way the world tackles certain problems. We’re not one of them, and we’re not trying to be one of them. The revolution we seek is to help communities in Mali have full ownership and control of their local health systems so that all mothers and children have access to quality care. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t partner with one of these visionaries (see #3 below) – and work together to find extraordinary solutions.

So we are. As a small community organization, everything Mali Health achieves is through partnerships. With donors, with communities, with mothers and families. This project allows us to build an exciting new partnership, which happens to include technology.

And perhaps it is through partnership – bringing together community expertise and resources, community builders and problem solvers like Mali Health, and the best of technology, innovation or social entrepreneurship like Lenali – that the real potential for transformative change using technology and innovation exists. Even social entrepreneurs need customers. Maybe it is none of these pieces alone, but working together in partnership with the others, that creates success? We’re excited to find out.

Speaking of partners, we have a pretty cool partner in Lenali.

Lenali is a Malian start-up that has developed a completely vocal technology, using local languages, to create a simpler, more understandable, and more inclusive platform for communication.

Lenali founder Dr. Mamadou Gouro Sidibé believes that the relatively the low rate of usage of social media in Mali and across sub-Saharan Africa is not just a problem of access to telecommunication infrastructures and their high costs, but a lack of understanding and relevance of existing social media services for those who do not read and write easily. He’s a true innovator.

CNN called Lenali “Mali’s homegrown Facebook” but we think it is a lot more than that. Though Lenali is not the first to use local languages and vocal interfaces, their app could be a strategic and cost-effective way to reach women in Mali, especially those in marginalized communities who have had very little access to education or opportunity.

Really, it’s Lenali’s fault that we find ourselves here. Wise and wonderful Mali Health board member Lisa Nichols first suggested we connect with Lenali to explore collaboration. As soon as we learned more about their technology, we realized its potential application to communicate health information and to reach marginalized women. If nothing else, we are excited to collaborate with a Malian start-up that has developed a local technology that responds to the significant societal challenge of an insufficient education system which particularly disadvantages women.

We are going to learn a lot. In fact, we already have.

Learning from others is very important to us. So important, in fact, that we made learning and data-based decision-making a pillar of our current strategic plan. It’s something we encourage within our team and within our organization everyday.

Participating in this process has already offered many lessons. Perhaps like me, skepticism about the appropriateness of technology to serve women living below the international poverty line, in some of the poorest peri-urban communities in the world, is still lingering in your mind. When we’re simply trying to help women and children prevent basic illness via handwashing with soap, or get to their community health center for prenatal care, malaria treatment, or to give birth – where is the role for technology? I had to learn.

My favorite line about the 9th surprise in Bill and Melinda’s letter is this: “connectivity is a solution to marginalization.” The most important part of that line is the smallest, the article: Connectivity is A solution, it is not THE solution. Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned so far is that simply using technology should not ever be THE solution. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Technology for its own sake almost never works. Technology is a tool, like soap or a mosquito net. And it is one that we should not overlook because the women and families we serve happen to be poor.

This lesson is also particularly evident in our baseline study, which was administered by our talented Research, Monitoring and Evaluation Department. Of the 300 women we surveyed in Sabalibougou, 100% reported owning a cell phone. Of those same women, 52% had no formal education and 37% had some primary school education. So, a full 89% of the women we surveyed had extremely limited or no formal education, meaning they are likely to have trouble with literacy and numeracy – but they all had a cell phone.

So, can connectivity be a solution to marginalization in this context? Absolutely, yes.

Our baseline study was full of other surprising results (so much learning!) but I will save those for another day. This project has already challenged my assumptions about technology – what it is, and how it can be used, it’s relevance to the poorest women – and I am ready for other assumptions to be challenged. That’s why learning is so important.

  We’re part of a supportive WCC community.

In June last year, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop in DC as a part of the WCC application process. I believe Mali Health was the only health organization to attend among the approximately 20 participants. We had to “pitch” our ideas to a panel of experts. As neither a tech expert, nor an entrepreneur, I was out of my element. Completely.

But not only did I meet some fantastic people, I learned a great deal. I learned from the other projects and organizations who attended and we learned together from a community of experts who shared their advice and work. There was a spirit of collegiality, not competition. For anyone who must attend professional workshops or conferences, or who have firsthand experience with USAID “co-creation” processes – you know what a rare experience that is, and can understand how much I appreciated it.

The person who is most responsible for this community is WCC Director Revi Sterling, whom we had the honor of hosting for the community launch of our project in Sabalibougou earlier this month. The odds, and perhaps irony, of Revi and her vision for WomenConnect landing at USAID at this moment is also another topic for another day – but we are so fortunate that she did.

Mali Health is proud to be a part of WomenConnect – and we will be working very hard to make our colleagues in the WomenConnect community proud of us.

As unlikely as it may be, thoughts of How on earth did we get here? have ceded to thoughts like What an amazing opportunity for our team!

We cannot know if this project will work – it is a pilot, after all. But as we work alongside 400 women in Sabalibougou and listen to what they think of a brand new technology and its relevance to their lives, I do know that I, and our team, will be learning a great deal along the way.