Mobile payments enable access to healthcare in Kenya
People in Kenya will soon be able to secure affordable healthcare at the press of a button using their mobile phones to save and pay for their medical needs. The
M-Tiba
health wallet, which adopts the technology of African bank transfer platform
M-Pesa
, keeps funds from donors and customers in secure accounts which can be used to pay fees to healthcare providers. The service was kick-started by the
Pfizer Foundation
as a collaborative effort between telecommunications company
Safaricom
,
PharmAccess Foundation
and
CarePay
to give patients in Africa access to treatment. Kenya is estimated to have around 0.2 doctors for every 1000 citizens. This compares with the five doctors for every 1000 citizens in Belgium.
According to a report by accountancy firm KPMG in 2012
, most Africans live 14 years less than the average global citizen, and 21 years less than the average European. Speaking on the launch of M-Tiba at
European Development Days
in Brussels on 16th June 2016, Pieter Walhof, Director of PharmAccess Foundation, said Africa still has “the highest disease burden and the lowest budget to take care of it”. Yet, public-private partnerships such as M-Pesa, now a household name in Africa, are making peoples’ financial decisions around health easier and more effective. “If you look at what M-Pesa has become, it is basically an instrument of solidarity. It allows very swift and easy income redistribution between groups,” Walhof said. Payments processed through M-Tiba range from deposits for families in Nairobi to international aid transfers from large donors. Testing the scaleability of M-Tiba in Kenya has brought PharmAccess into a joint programme with Kenya-based medical research foundation
Amref Health Africa
. Communities in locations with limited connectivity however set a hurdle in M-Tiba’s path to democratising healthcare across all regions. Director of Mobile Money at
Vodafone Group
, Michael Joseph, also speaking at the event, said: “The biggest challenge for us is healthcare when it is most needed in very remote areas, and we don’t always have mobile coverage of those remote areas.” The most effective and least expensive way to tackle this, according to Joseph, is through combined funding from governments and mobile network companies to install connectivity at ground level in remote rural areas. “When you go into these areas and there’s no tower in sight, you can put a tower on a hill, and from that you can get quite a lot of coverage. If you put a mobile phone tower on a hill somewhere, you might get network coverage of a 25km to 50km radius,” he said. Payments made through the M-Tiba system are tracked to ensure funds arrive where they are intended. As well as being financially secure, the platform also makes individuals who pay safer, especially if the payer is female. Maternity clinics in the slums of Nairobi still carry the risk of attack for women carrying large sums of cash to pay for healthcare. The threat of theft and physical abuse diminishes by contrast in cases where payments are digital and do not involve cash. Prototypes of M-Tiba have been tested at around 44 different clinics in Kenya, providing for 10,000 beneficiaries, according to its official site. Walhof said even those that are illiterate in Nairobi’s most impoverished slum villages have shown competent use of the health wallet. “The whole illiteracy training and development problem that we always see actually disappears, because [communities] start to teach themselves, just as kids do when you give them an iPad,” he said. M-Tiba has yet to lure Kenyans however. The product was recently granted regulatory approval to launch to market, but Walhof told
Development Finance
the platform will need to convince customers it can be as secure and as efficient as its predecessor. “Most of the people in Kenya make use of M-Pesa but one of the challenges is to make sure healthcare providers are connected and that the services work well. From the supply side, you have to do everything step by step. When you roll out a new product, you can’t reach every region in the country at once,” he said.
By Jack Aldane
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Photo: Pierre Holtz for UNICEF