Rajesh Anandan
Senior Vice President, Strategic Partnerships and UNICEF Ventures

Driverless cars to take us to work. Delivery drones to drop off our groceries. Heads-up displays to entertain us in virtual realities. 3D printed everything for every occasion. All of this is a reality today. And yet, we are also living in a reality where more than 760 million people lack access to something as basic as clean drinking water, a reality in which 18,000 young children die every single day due to things we can prevent like pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria.

But thanks to the emergence of a dizzying array of new technologies and the courage of countless social innovators across the globe, we now have the power to change our world in ways that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. 

While new iPhones brought delight to more than 40 million people around the world in the past three months alone, smartphone penetration remains below 20 percent across Africa, Asia and Latin America, and close to zero percent in the poorest and most marginalized communities on those continents. For those communities, hi-tech smartphone apps are not an option, but smart services that can run on the most basic cell phones can be just as impactful. 

The Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification System (RapidFTR) is used to collect and share information via mobile device about children and families in emergencies. The information aids family tracing and reunification of unaccompanied minors.
Photo: © UNICEF/UKLA2013-03809/Shah

Saving lives

More than 700 children in low-income countries are infected with HIV every day. In many places, 90 percent of new infections are the result of HIV transmission from mothers to their children. If an infected newborn does not start receiving treatment for HIV during the first 12 weeks of life, chances of survival are slim. This critical window for initiating treatment is often missed for babies in rural communities because of logistical challenges and delays in transporting HIV test results from rural clinics to city lab facilities and back.

In Zambia, community health workers, HIV experts from UNICEF, local cellular service providers, and national health officials came together to solve this problem. The result was Project Mwana, which uses simple mobile phones and text messages to link Zambia’s national labs with rural communities. The program is getting HIV test results into the hands of mothers in less than half the time it used to take, which can mean the difference between life and death for infants born with HIV.

Scalable solutions

Project Mwana was built using RapidSMS, an open source platform developed to harness the power of text messaging for real time data collection and group communication. RapidSMS has spawned a new generation of simple, scalable solutions that work in the hardest to reach communities. For example, it has tracked more than 60 million insecticide treated bednets to stop the spread of malaria, and registered more than 8 million newborns in Nigeria to help ensure access to healthcare and education. 

These are not shiny new toys, nor do they require expensive new systems, but they are leveraging the power of technology to transform the lives of millions of people right now—people who now have the opportunity to change their own realities.