Devex Article Featuring SystemOne & Vodafone Partnership

How Vodafone is supporting health delivery in Africa

By Lisa Cornish (Devex)

The technological barrier in delivering health care services in remote and regional developing communities is a challenge for many NGOs — especially if it requires fast and reliable communication networks to send and receive health data to assist planning and response. But slowly, these technological hurdles are being reduced.

By working with startups and NGOs operating in developing countries, communication giants have access to an important intelligence network helping them to understand development needs and enable better coverage for emerging markets. And the development community, in turn, can scale solutions for wider and faster impact.

In Africa, a new partnership between the Vodafone Foundation and SystemOne demonstrates how this exchange of knowledge and services can overcome barriers of reliability to deliver rapid health diagnosis support throughout the continent.

SystemOne is a Boston-based company that aims to provide fast access to diagnostic data, monitoring and evaluation systems, and connectivity solutions using software and services supporting multiple diagnostic devices and multiple diseases. Currently, the majority of their support is focused in remote areas of Africa.

Their platforms enable fast delivery and receipt of diagnostics to enable health services to provide prompt treatment and save lives in some of the remotest areas of the world and according to Jeff Takle, chief development officer for SystemOne, their work has enabled governments to change the way they could identify and respond to various outbreaks. The only thing standing in the way of reliability was the communications infrastructure they were required to use.

“Reliability has always been an issue,” Takle told Devex. “In the past we have juggled up to 50 local mobile operators with still emerging businesses services wrapped around these agreements. And this meant we were heavily constrained in what we could do.”

Since May, SystemOne have been upgrading devices and platforms using Vodafone’s global Internet of Things, or IoT, SIM and Managed IoT Connectivity platform. “The Vodafone global SIM acts like a local SIM wherever it roams, meaning Vodafone can support IoT capabilities anywhere in the world, and the user, in this case SystemOne, only works with one supplier,” Andrew Morawski, president and country chairman of Vodafone Americas, explained to Devex.

Access to Vodafone’s network and technology is a crucial part of the partnership for Takle, who has listened to countless pitches from communications companies claiming reliable service, support and infrastructure.

“I have heard of this ‘unicorn’ of a global sim that would provide the global coverage we needed repeatedly over the past five years, and always found it was just smoke and mirrors — they didn’t work in the field,” Takle said.

Dealing with the corporate objectives and models of organizations to support development needs was also a challenge — AT&T, for example, wanted a larger portion of the SystemOne business based in the United States and had high data usage. This clearly did not match the circumstances of health providers in remote African communities.

“For us, it was about finding a partner that had reach, could help us scale faster with a whole lot more quality and stability who also had a long-term view — Africa is one of the fastest growing economies in the world with huge potential,” Takle said.

Vodafone’s assertions of reliable networks and support were impressive to a suspicious Takle, who challenged what they had to say. “They had awesome answers,” he said. Testing in Botswana, Mozambique and other countries proved the technology was working as they said it would. And importantly, Vodafone was willing to invest and give SystemOne resources to develop, and had a long-term vision to support emerging economies.

“I’m sure our Vodafone contacts will tell you that we are fairly vocal … and continuous in our feedback,” Takle joked. “There are some countries that are very difficult for any international organization to work in — in the telecom space. What I have really enjoyed is working through those kinds of problems, and so far the team has been very responsive. They have been willing to learn, are creative in coming up with solutions, and we operate in a space that has huge potential so they have been generous with their time.”

The most important factor in this new partnership is that SystemOne is now confident in discussing rapid rollout of their technology to support health crises as they emerge. “I can now talk to a client about rolling out services to 54 countries in nine months,” Takle said. “It’s exciting to be able to talk on a big scale.”

The reliability of infrastructure and support meant SystemOne was able to offer their technology to the World Health Organization and African Centre for Disease Control following the May outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Within days, they had established a network to share diagnosis data to prevent the spread of the disease.

It was a service they may not have been able to provide without Vodafone to partner with and guarantee their support.

According to Morawski, supporting the developing world through technology is an important part of Vodafone’s work, with efforts focused through the Vodafone Foundation and 27 local foundations throughout the world.

While gender equality and financial inclusion are among the priority development areas for funding and support, it is health that continues to emerge as an important area of need.

The foundation has created a first-of-its-kind, free, “ambulance taxi” and emergency line service for high-risk pregnant women in two districts in Tanzania. A mobile application has also been developed to help community health workers manage 10,000 pregnant women and identify which cases are high-risk. And the winner of the 2017 Wireless Innovation Project was a health focused project — a smartphone-based platform that detects and helps track infectious disease outbreaks developed by PathVis.

“Entities such as the Vodafone Foundation help to channel the conversation. It’s not about asking for charitable handouts — there is fantastic economic value to be exchanged and developed here through partnerships.”

— Jeff Takle, chief development officer for SystemOne

Innovation challenges are an important way for large corporations to engage with startups and organizations with new and emerging ideas ready to scale. Within the United States, the Wireless Innovation Project has been an important avenue for Vodafone to identify and reach out to startups supporting development initiatives.

For NGOs, engaging corporations directly is important in understanding how the private sector can fit into and support development challenges. But the first steps in engaging a large corporate such as Vodafone can be daunting.

“When you are thinking as a small company on how to partner with a global company such as Vodafone, where do you start?” Takle asked.

From the experience of SystemOne, engaging a corporation such as Vodafone through a charity arm — which understands development challenges — is the best way of introduction.

“Entities such as the Vodafone Foundation help to channel the conversation,” Takle said. “It’s not about asking for charitable handouts — there is fantastic economic value to be exchanged and developed here through partnerships.”

According to Takle, it is an important step to take and conversation to have to improve health outcomes and Morawski says the Vodafone Foundation’s commitment to strengthen the global development sector using technology means that their door is always open to NGOs.