What is the M-PESA of Mobile Health?

Posted by dsasaki on Jul 30, 2008

Mobile banking has been touted as such a wild success story for one simple reason: mobile phones have penetrated the market in rural areas of developing countries in the last five years more successfully than traditional banks have been able to over the past 100 years. You can travel to any remote village just about anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa and it is rare that you will find a bank; far rarer that you will find an ATM. (I remember waiting three and a half hours to use an ATM once in Namibia.) But you are guaranteed to hear ringtones.

Once banks realized that basic financial transactions (deposit, withdrawal, payment, check balance) can all be done over a mobile phone, they understood that the banking services they offer can finally reach customers in places where just a few years earlier they had never dreamed of doing business.

M-PESA, a mobile banking program of Safaricom in Kenya, allows cell phone subscribers to send payments using SMS messages. Jim Rosenberg who manages CGAP's technology blog notes that the majority of the M-PESA's 2.3 million registered users are migrant workers who send back money to their families based in rural communities. For example, a young construction worker from Bukura now working in Nairobi might deposit 10% of his weekly pay into his mother's M-PESA account. She will then receive a text message letting her know that a deposit has been made and she can then walk over to her local general store to withdraw the money. (How to send and receive money using M-PESA is explained here.) Thanks to M-PESA, banking has now arrived to Bukura.

This week I am at Rockefeller's Bellagio Center in Italy with 25 or so representatives from the mobile phone industry, the healthcare sector, and philanthropy. They have all gathered here for a week to think deeply about what is essentially a single question: What is the M-PESA of mobile health? Or, to put it another way, just as mobile banking brings financial services to customers without banks, how can the mobile phone help bring healthcare to patients without hospitals?

Over the next few days I will be interviewing some of the participants here to get a better understanding of the current state of mHealth and what future applications might be developed on mobile phones to improve health care in the developing world.

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