The changing face of Africa's healthcare sector - CNBC Africa

The changing face of Africa's healthcare sector


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The marriage of technology and healthcare are changing the face of wellness in Africa. PHOTO: Getty Images

According to the World Bank, there are roughly 650 million cell phones in Africa, over taking numbers in both the United States and Europe. While the number of Africans with laptops and tablets may not be as high as in the Western world, the changing face of healthcare has been significant enough to have become a key focus at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

As the internet and technology start becoming an integral part of people's lives, from education to general information, a handful of them have begun creating a market where the marriage between healthcare and technology have become essential to the life of African.


Mpho Mohale, managing director of Phela-Live Wellness Centre at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, explained how he saw a critical gap in the market for airport workers and frequenters.

“The airport community, there’s just between 18,000 and 22,000 people working [there]. We’re currently doing certain projects for Airports Company South Africa in terms of maintenance. One of the things is, because of the shifts, the awkward times people are working, you end up not being able to access the wellness centres or the gyms because of all of those [factors],” Mohale told

The wellness centre, which was launched in January, is a newly-opened gym and spa facility that aims to merge fitness and healthy living, and is a one-of-a-kind space that has also managed to combine technology into an everyday part of being in good shape.

The centre stands apart from the other odd 750 health clubs in South Africa because of its particular use of technology to not only operate its facility but to provide an additional level of interaction between member and trainer.

Phela Live members gain access to the centre through the facility's digital key system, which can also act as a virtual coach at any given time.

Members can therefore log on to their digital gym profiles at any time to check their fitness levels. It also provides an interactive platform between trainer and client either via email or instant message platforms such as Blackberry Messenger and WhatsApp.

A member’s information will also be backed up on Apples’ cloud computing system iCloud, which will enable members to have access to their fitness information and targets wherever they are, and pick up exactly from where they left off.

“We saw it as an opportunity because all of us in this day and age realise that health is one of your greatest assets. The more you work, you get tired, you don't get time to really exercise,” Mohale explained.

“We see a lot of younger people dying due to stress related issues. When I saw this building I said ‘If you look at the glass windows there, I already see treadmills.’”

In the next few years, Phela-Live also plans on operating on a 24 hours basis, another element that sets it apart from other fitness and wellness facilities.

In a country where more than 29 per cent of men and 56 per cent of women are obese, in accordance with a the South African Medical Research Council report, it can be viewed as a necessary step in the battle against bad health.

“Wellness is an industry that is growing. If you look at the statistics in South Africa, only just over two million people belong to organised gyms or wellness centres. It means that there are a lot of people who are really not yet accessing them. We want to work into that market and find out what people really want and adapt to that.”


Elsewhere, the marriage of the cell phone and maternal healthcare has developed into a life-saving means at the touch of a button.

The Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, or MAMA, which was launched worldwide by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in 2011, has steadily developed into a paramount example of a new age of healthcare information dissemination.

MAMA provides life-saving health information to pregnant women, new mothers and their families primarily through SMS, cell phone audio messages and through its mobile website 

“In maternal and child health, it’s actually very interesting, because the behaviours and health practices that save lives, they’re not complicated. They’re really simple, many of them. Basic things like skin-to-skin contact between the mother and the baby after birth, or something like cleaning the umbilical cord carefully with clean water or surgical spirits so that you don't get an infection,” MAMA deputy director Joanne Peter explained.

“These are very simple things that should be easy for mothers and families to implement, but they don't always have the right information.”

According to Peter, the use of mobile technology, as opposed to face to face interaction, has proven to be significantly more effective through the MAMA programme due to the larger level of reach the one has over another.

Since its launch, MAMA has managed to gain roughly 800,000 women subscribers to its programme, and is present in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

“In South Africa, there are actually more SIM cards than people. The same in most countries in the world, even the low income countries. If you think about how you use your phone, it’s very personal and valuable. If you are receiving information over your phone, it can be targeted to you in an intimate way, which means that you're much more likely to read that message and engage with that.”

The MAMA programme in Bangladesh has been the longest-running going for the longest, and now has over 280,000 subscribers. Unlike in countries such as Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa, Bangladesh’s programme is pre-dominantly audio-message based due to high illiteracy levels.

“We’ve had many organisations from Kenya that have asked for the messages, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, almost every country in Africa, there has been at least one organisation that's actually downloaded the messages saying they would like to start a programme. Some of them have actually managed to get started and some of them are still in the earlier phases.”

MAMA is one of many programmes that are using cell phone technology to run their initiatives. SMS and cell phone programmes are also much cheaper to operate than having a physical workshop.

The privacy element of the cell phone is also instrumental, as people can talk privately about their health status without fear or judgement.

Third-party organisations can also adopt the MAMA programme, download its message information and create similar initiatives within their communities.

“Face to face [interaction] is always going to be an incredibly valuable way of sharing information, but mobile offers some advantages which we think make it really good as a medium for sharing health information,” said Peter.