Everything is relative. That is the one lesson I always keep in mind in my life as an ICT for development practitioner. Coming from the hyper-concentrated technology world of New York City, it’s sometimes hard to remember the diversity of technological innovation sweeping through the African continent. As it turns out, the technological diversity is as diverse as the continent itself. That’s why I was surprised to find out my next assignment would be in the central African nation of Burundi.
Simply put, Burundi has a lot of challenges with which to contend in the face of technological innovation. Mobile penetration rates – especially among women – are among the lowest in the world, let alone the region. Access to consistent electricity, a landlocked landmass, and a nascent telecom industry are other considerable challenges. When combined with a low literacy rate, the idea of implementing an SMS-based project to better infant and maternal mortality seems daunting.
Indeed, many of the successes that have been achieved with RapidSMS and RapidPro in other countries may not, in fact, happen here in Burundi. Without the same level of infrastructure, mobile literacy, or general technological fluency, the uptake of an ICT project is likely to be slower and measured in smaller strides. Yet this slower pace is precisely why UNICEF Innovations can play such a critical role with Project KiraMAMA.
Even when in the context of something as ubiquitous to humankind as birth, to properly contextualize, implement and deploy a technology-based platform in Burundi will take a high level of customization, sensitization, and persistence. While private sector telecom companies have taken reign across the African continent, Burundi remains on the outskirts of this inclusion in private sector offerings. UNICEF can therefore play a critical role in introducing key ideas of mobile technologies. With for-profit partnerships in-country, UNICEF stands to introduce a modality of work never before seen in Burundi.
Over time, I hope to see this project open the gateway to more technological innovation across the country. I hope in my participation, I am part of not just a project, but of a movement. UNICEF Innovations is about building stronger, healthier, and safer communities for children and mothers across the world. Thanks to projects such as KiraMAMA, Burundi will be a part of that movement.
By Mala Kumar, Project Manager, KiraMAMA