Gurgaon: First, mobile phones took a stab at replacing radios, television sets and computers. Now, they’ll get a shot at playing doctor, too.
In a program to be launched later this year by the Gurgaon-based mobile gaming company ZMQ Software Systems, women in the rural areas will be able to get prenatal advice via text message. The new offering builds on both efforts to tap into the nearly 300 million mobile phone users in the country—growing by almost 10 million per month—and parallel attempts to use technology to get basic health care into areas that don’t have it.
Under ZMQ’s new service, once a woman registers with her date of pregnancy, she will receive weekly tips on what to eat, what vaccines to get, and when to get check-ups. Since men usually carry the phone, the company is tying up with network providers such as Reliance Communications Ltd to reward the user with one free phone call each time an expectant mother logs in.
Innovation: Hilmi Quraishi and Subhi Quraishi of ZMQ envision one-rupee knowledge for the last-mile customer through cellphones. Photograph: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
“We can’t always reach communities through formal means,” says Hilmi Quraishi, who founded ZMQ along with his twin brother Subhi. “We need to have some fun.”
The software firm’s main businesses include both commercial games for mobile phones, and training programmes for corporate clients. But the brothers’ communist roots—they spent many of their formative years in the former Soviet Union, and still speak to each other in Russian—inspired them to plough around 12% of ZMQ’s profits back into social development programmes related to the company’s core business.
Over the past few years, the Quraishis have developed mobile games such as the AIDS Penalty Shoot-Out, which teaches players about the dangers of HIV and the precautions to take, and Mission Lighting, a game about climate change where the player replaces incandescent light bulbs with the more energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamps.
They have also created computer-based programmes that teach, among other things, midwives to become nurses, and rural women to build their own businesses. But they realized that any software that required a computer would have limited reach. “Every person carries it,” says Quraishi, referring to a mobile phone and the company’s entry into mobile learning, “and it’s not based on economic criteria.”
The use of mobile phones may also be a step away from the problems that plagued previous strategies to use technology in rural health care. The so-called telemedicine projects, which used a centrally located doctor to provide advice through telephone and video conferencing with remote contacts, ran into difficulties of cost and confidence.
“The acceptance level has not been very high, since the concept of touch and heal is very strong,” says Prashant Chauhan, a senior manager for health at the rural development organization Drishtee Development and Communication Ltd. “And you have the recurring cost of bandwidth and broadband lines and the cost equipment for imaging,” he says, “to scale it up requires a lot of funding”.
ZMQ’s new programme also complements other initiatives around the country to pay women to have their children delivered by professionals, rather than by the untrained midwives more popular in rural areas. “There could be a programmed SMS before the day of the next check-up,” says Chauhan, “and reminders for the first tetanus, the first ultrasound, this would be a real great benefit if it is done.”
The mobile-based education industry is still in its infancy, but the potential is large. One two-year-old mobile-learning company EnableM, which offers programmes ranging from basic English to test preparation and career counselling all through a mobile phone, already has almost 250,000 subscribers, and expects to grow threefold by the end of next year.
Each of its courses only costs Rs25-30 per month. “The primary idea was to address the large need for education, and combine it with the quick growing numbers in mobile,” says EnableM founder and chief executive officer Amit Zaveri.
Biju Mohandas, India business manager for the venture capital firm Acumen Fund, which focuses on socially relevant investments, says he is considering several similar business plans that use SMS technology in rural health care. All currently in the conception state, the plans range from services to inform doctors about new drugs to reminders for patients about appointments or medicines they need to take. “There is huge potential,” he says, “if it can be done at scale”—a threshold he cites at five million subscribers.
ZMQ, meanwhile, is still tinkering with the formula for its new venture, but has a vision in place. “One-rupee knowledge,” Quraishi says, “for the last-mile customer.”