Supporting healthy childbirth in Africa

An emergency transport service that has reduced deaths in childbirth is expanding in Africa.

The World Health Organization estimates that 830 women die every day in developing countries from preventable causes during pregnancy and childbirth. Many people die in rural areas due to lack of proper medical care.

Called “m-mama,” the service connects pregnant women facing complications during childbirth to medical facilities free of charge. Mama uses a network of local taxis that act as ambulances and an app that works with or without an internet connection.

A man in an orange T-shirt smiles from the driver's seat (© Sala Lewis/Vodafone Foundation)
In Sengelema, Tanzania, taxi driver Omari Mabula drives pregnant women to clinics as part of the M-Mama service. (©Sarah Lewis/Vodafone Foundation)

“We are bringing this wonderful dispatched emergency transport service to Kenya,” said Samantha Power, Secretary of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in an interview with Kenya Television Network (KTN) in Nairobi on June 22. If M-mama works in Kenya, she can save tens of thousands of lives in the country, she added.

M-mama has reduced maternal mortality by 38% and infant mortality by 40% in a pilot area in Tanzania launched in 2013. We also have operations in Lesotho.

Power described m-mama as an “exciting example” of technology improving public health. The dispatcher receives information about the mother’s complications via app or phone, checks facility availability, and connects the mother with a taxi. As a result, pregnant women no longer have to risk further complications by walking or biking to the hospital or staying at home.

USAID will provide up to $5 million to launch m-mama in Kenya. The UK-based charity Vodafone Foundation and its African partner, the M-PESA Foundation, will donate another $9 million. The partnership also includes Kenyan telecom company Safaricom and the Kenyan government.

Many other U.S. initiatives are also supporting healthy births in Africa. among them:

  • The US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has enabled more than 5.5 million babies to be born HIV-free to mothers living with HIV.
  • Lucy Chuwa, an alumnus of the American Academy of Women Entrepreneurship, founded Mamakit, a business that delivers clean sheets, gloves, cotton and sterile blades to mothers in East Africa to prevent infections during childbirth.
  • California-based Zipline drones deliver life-saving medical supplies, including blood for transfusion, to hard-to-reach communities in rural Africa. Delivery reduces transport time from hours to minutes.
A drone flies inside an empty dropbox fitted with a parachute (© Luke Dray/Getty Images)
A zipline drone delivers medical supplies to a hospital in Linkwab, Rwanda in June 2022 (© Luke Dray/Getty Images)

According to 2022 data, Zipline has delivered more than 190,000 life-saving items across the country since it launched in Rwanda in 2016. Zipline says its births have reduced maternal deaths from postpartum hemorrhage in hospitals in Rwanda by 88%.

In November 2022, the United States Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) announced a grant to assess the feasibility of expanding pharmaceutical delivery services by Zipline to new regions in Ghana and Nigeria.

“Increasing access to health care is critical for West Africa,” said USTDA Director Hainaud Ebon in November. “Our partnership with Zipline demonstrates the role that non-traditional models of healthcare access can play in addressing this need.”

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