Praekelt Foundation developed MomConnect in South Africa in 2013 as part of the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, a global partnership to reduce maternal and infant deaths by delivering information to women on their mobile phones. MomConnect provides pregnant women and new mothers with a text-based help desk to which they can send questions and receive guidance from trained nurses, as well as automated reminders and tips delivered throughout their pregnancy.
Both aim to improve health services, outcomes and systems by driving utilization of public clinics and generating real-time performance data for health officials and providers. While registration is still conducted exclusively via USSD, and services are still available via SMS and IVR, in 2016 Praekelt decided to also test MomConnect services via messaging applications.
Praekelt pursued messaging app integration to enable faster and cheaper messaging for MomConnect and its users and to expand MomConnect’s help desk experience. WeChat was tested first due to availability of the API, but the app’s penetration in South Africa was low and its user base was outside the low-income demographic. Praekelt also tested Facebook Messenger integration but struggled to reliably link users to their Facebook accounts due to users not always having registered their mobile phone numbers. Despite these challenges, in 2017 Praekelt decided to test WhatsApp when offered an exclusive opportunity to pilot an unreleased API.
After a new MomConnect user registers via USSD, the platform now uses the phone number to automatically search WhatsApp and allow subscribers to engage MomConnect via the app. If the subscriber is a WhatsApp user, all further tips and helpdesk communications happen across WhatsApp. If not, the subscriber still has access to the MomConnect services via SMS or IVR. On the backend, help desk nurses monitor the system and push responses to incoming queries through a single, channel-agnostic interface, which then delivers them according to each user’s preferred channel.
Praekelt reports that its WhatsApp integration has quickly improved MomConnect’s efficiency and effectiveness, but viability depends on the final commercial pricing. Plans and new funding are nevertheless in place to test multimedia and other behavior change content and techniques via WhatsApp, and early prototyping with bots and groups is proceeding with caution.