Development of mobile health technologies is lagging in Latin America, but it’s not for lack of effort from the Inter-American Development Bank, IDB lead specialist Rafael Anta said in an interview with Devex. Often, the stumbling block appears to be a lack of private-sector investments to accompany donor funding.
IDB approached eight large telecommunications firms earlier this year with the hope of developing partnerships to address 10 specific issues associated with poverty.
“We told them, ‘Hey, you can choose any of these problems that are a priority for your company and we can work together,’” Anta said after his appearance as a panelist at the mHealth Summit in Washington. “Then the discussion turns to, ‘Okay, we like this problem because it’s in Brazil and because it’s health, but the condition we put is that if we put up some money the technology should be our technology.’ This is the level of conversation that comes up.”
In the end only one company, Telefonica, agreed to serve as a co-investor, focusing on maternal and child health in Peru.
For Anta, the project, called Mobile Citizen, was not about the cell phone, the software or the network, but about discovering innovative ways to address the needs of poor people and fostering technological innovation.
“Our reason to get involved in mobile health is that we want to make a case for innovation in Latin America and we picked health because it’s one of the most essential services where they face huge gaps in terms of service, in terms of quality and also in terms of financing,” he said. The telecommunications companies, he said, would gain “an amazing amount of knowledge that they could use in their future agendas in their companies.”
The problems chosen by the bank included six related to health, two to employment and two to education. Grants ranged from $30,000 to $100,000. In what Anta called a “demand driven approach,” the issues largely were suggested by universities in a competitive process.
IDB is moving ahead with five projects, despite the lack of investment from communications firms. In addition to the Peru effort, they address unemployment in Chile, Chagas disease detection and surveillance in Argentina, diabetes monitoring in Chile, and data collection on vaccination rates in Mexico.
Anta said he hoped that the projects would be successful and thus draw investments for potential scale-up.
Mobile health applications are more widespread in Africa and Asia than Latin America since they attract more donors, Anta said, adding that IDB may be the only donor supporting mhealth in Latin America. Anta noted there are particular problems associated with developing applications in Latin America, including the fact that 400 million subscribers have entry-level phones.
“Everything we have to do should be SMS [text] based,” he said. “It puts a lot of challenges for you to have to make an application interactive based on SMS.”
On the other hand, the literacy rate in Latin America is much higher than in Africa, he noted, giving text based programs a broader reach.