Saving Lives with Low Tech: A Retrospective

It all started with a joke.

I was standing in my boss’ office dreaming up one of my wild ideas for our maternal health project, a toll-free hotline for maternal health services:

“Where there’s no 911, we’ll make one. A toll-free hotline that people can call for emergency services.”

Obstetric emergency services,” she said.

“We’re going to call it “MY-AMAI” so that they can remember the number.” “Amai” means “mother” in Nyanja, one of the local languages.

“Great, you’ll starting working on that tomorrow,” she affirmed. There was no question in her voice.

Feeling slightly overwhelmed but excited about my new task, I attempted to go to sleep that night but I couldn’t help but think about how the project would take shape.

As a health advisor for the Saving Mothers Giving Life project, my goal was to help develop supply-side interventions to reduce infant and maternal mortality in Zambia’s Eastern Province.

At the core of this project plan was our research.  I knew that access to telecommunications services (cell phone service) would help advance project goals by creating a response system during obstetric emergencies.

Mwanya RHC 270-48 Nechari interviewing Facility In-Charge
Speaking with the In-Charge

In collaboration with my team, I identified our primary users as the health practitioners at the local health facilities, also known as In-Charges. Many of the In-Charges had bar-style cell phones (one for each carrier) which either had one main provider, multiple SIM cards to switch between providers (based on service in that region), or double SIM-card capacity (one phone with two SIM cards you can switch between). I knew that this hotline needed to work on the major telecommunications networks.

First, I mapped out a plan of who I needed to coordinate within our company, external vendors, and began mapping out the technical requirements, budget, and our roll-out plan. Working closely with our operations team, IT department, and major telecommunications companies, I spent the next few months ironing out the details of the contract and service features.

Chasera HP 380-6 Communication mast
Communications line

While waiting for the contracts to be finalized, I also worked with the data engineers at the telecommunications companies to overlay their GPS waypoints with the GPS points-of-interest my team collected for our facility assessments in order to find the best clinics to test our new hotline based on their cell phone reception.

Once our hotlines were activated, I purchased the lowest tech double-SIM phone that would allow us to receive incoming calls (and a few texts). After testing it with my team and with the telecommunications companies, our toll-free hotline was born!

Double-SIM phone used for Toll-Free Hotline Demo

So, what did I learn during this process? Not everything has to be solved with high-tech solutions. In fact, not everything should be solved with high-tech solutions so that we can create accessible services for people in need. Our research was key in identifying who are users were and what their requirements would be in order for us to develop a solution that was sustainable. Developing low-tech solutions is a great way to test the scalability of an idea that can have the biggest impact on your target audience.