Vodafone invests $15m to help curb maternal mortality in Africa


The Vodafone Foundation and USAID are investing $15 million to expand an emergency transportation system in Tanzania that provides free emergency rides to the hospital for pregnant women, in order to help reduce maternal mortality in the country.

Vodafone Group Plc.’s foundation is committing $10 million in partnership with the US Agency for International Development, which will contribute $5 million, to build the infrastructure necessary to support the program after a successful pilot run, Joakim Reiter, Vodafone chief external and corporate affairs officer, said at an event at the United Nations General Assembly.

The funds will extend the program’s initial coverage from two districts in Tanzania, home to about 1 million people, to the entire country of about 60 million. Tanzania has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with 524 deaths per 100,000 births, according to a report by the Touch Foundation, which helped start the program. The Vodafone Foundation also committed an additional $5 million to replicate the program in other sub-Saharan countries with high rates of  maternal mortality.

During the pilot program, which ran from 2013 to 2020, patients called a dispatch center to be connected to a medical professional to assess their health through a mobile application called m-mama. A local taxi driver, functioning as an ambulance, used the app to find the patient and take them to a hospital. Upon safe arrival, the government paid the driver through M-Pesa, a digital money transfer program developed by Vodafone’s African arm, Vodacom, which works via SMS messaging.

The program was initially available to pregnant women in the Shinyanga and Sengerema/Buchosa districts of Tanzania. The service — funded by Vodafone and USAID and implemented by the Touch Foundation, Pathfinder International and the local government — has saved 300 lives and transported over 15,000 women and newborns, reducing the maternal mortality rate by 30%, according to the report from the Touch Foundation.

Despite local government and international efforts to improve neonatal health, a history of economic deprivation and an urban-rural divide keeps conditions dire in Tanzania. Maternal deaths, 99% of which occur in low and middle-income countries, according to the World Bank, are often treatable with proper medical care for hemorrhage or hypertension.

The lack of health infrastructure and education in rural Tanzania leaves many mothers on their own. Running the program at national scale could save around 17,000 lives in the first five years, Reiter said. “We are actively looking to extend the program to new territories,” he added.