Pre-plan for ebola-style crises

By Tom Jackson, South Africa

African operators have been advised to pre-plan for a crisis such as the one faced by West African countries in the form of the ebola outbreak, by ensuring people are signed up to information dissemination services in advance.

Panelists speaking at the GSMA Mobile 360 Series Africa event in Cape Town said it was extremely difficult for operators to get people signed up for such services at the time of a crisis, and thus steps should be taken before.

Jacob Korenblum, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of SoukTel, which works with development agencies and mobile operators to come up with solutions for disaster areas, said in Somalia is organisation set up a service that provided subscribers with updates on soap operas, but which when a food crisis hit the country provided information on things such as food distribution points.

“Preparedness is crucial. Get people interested at a time when it is not crucial for them to be interested,” he said. “Get people active and on board at a time when there is not a crisis, so that when there is a crisis you are not scrambling to get 250,000 people on the service.”

Francis Ebuehi, vice president for VAS at Airtel Nigeria, agreed, saying African countries needed to be more proactive with such services.

“Typically you find that most African countries only react, they are not being proactive,” he said. “Why put a structure in place to provide for something that is non-existent? First you will have to change that mindset.”

Ebuehi said Airtel Nigeria had already been active in terms of putting in place healthcare information services, launching call a doctor and mobile midwife initiatives. “We have tried to put in place these initiatives to help people prepare their minds that there is always someone you can call on is you have an issue,” he said.

Vodafone Ghana is another operator that has been active in making sure it is prepared in the event of a health crisis, even though there has been no outbreak of ebola in Ghana.

Benedict Sumah, portfolio management specialist at Vodafone Ghana, told the conference the company had set up a number of initiatives, including Healthline, the first health call centre in Africa, Healthfest, and a Health App.

“This is quite a big commitment to healthcare and forms a significant part of our budget,” he said. “Today we are probably more prepared to deal with an outbreak than we were three months ago.”

He said the main role an operator could play was in information dissemination.

“We have a dedicated SMS service for ebola,”he said. “We also have the health call centre which we have expanded by 50 per cent in capacity. It is in the same building as our regular call centre so in case of an outbreak we can scale up. We have also extended the service to non-Vodafone customers.”

However, both Sumah and Ebuehi said it was imperative that healthcare was not seen as the responsibility of telecoms firms, and that government must play its part in assisting with disseminating information in a cost-effective way.

“We cannot sit here and say that healthcare is the responsibility of the telecos to solve. Healthcare is a government responsibility,” said Sumah. “In Ghana the government has also done part of the job. We have done fantastic work around polio, we have done fantastic work around AIDS. Governments must do their part. Only then can the response of the telecos become effective.”

Ebuehi said operators needed to balance their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives with being private companies that are required to make money.

“If you can actually make it a self-sustaining initiative I think most operators will buy into it, but putting money aside all the time for CSR is not something that most operators are into,” he said.

Korenblum also warned against the damaging effects of duplication in the efforts to spread information on ebola, and urged coordination between all players.

“There are in Liberia and Sierra Leone at least a dozen information services up and running. The sheer amount of information being pushed out to people right now is overwhelming,” he said.

“The impact of that information actually diminishes over time. If you get 20 messages you tune out. We can’t underestimate the confusion that is going on at different levels, and the duplication. For a targeted response I think we all need to work together.”

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