Chelsea Hedquist is a Senior Communications Officer with mHelath Alliance. Her article was originally published here.
Last month, my colleague and I had the unique opportunity to spend 10 days zigzagging across India from New Delhi to Hyderabad. We took planes, trains, automobiles and rickshaws – stopping in six cities in less than two weeks – on an unforgettable journey to visit the sites of several projects that the mHealth Alliance supports through our Innovation Working Group catalytic grant program.
Through this program, which is supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), we provide catalytic funding for mHealth projects that aim to improve maternal and child health in low- and middle-income countries. We also support our grantees with technical assistance, in cooperation with the World Health Organization. Currently, we have 26 grantees that collectively aim to reach nearly 31 million people across 14 countries with mHealth services. This trip gave us the chance to see some of their work in action.
Our first stop took us to Uttar Pradesh to connect with one of our newest grantees, Sesame Workshop India. After arriving in the city of Kanpur, we drove for about an hour along narrow roads, lined with rice fields and dotted with water buffalo, to reach the “Waqt ki Awaaz” community radio station in the Maitha block of the Kanpur Dehat district. This station broadcasts four times each day and serves a population of 200,000 spread over a 10 kilometer area. In August, Waqt ki Awaaz began broadcasting educational content on health and nutrition produced by Galli Galli Sim Sim (the name for Sesame Street in India). In addition to broadcasting the content via radio, families can also access it by calling a number that almost immediately calls them back and plays an episode, which teaches them about, for example, hand washing to keep from getting sick.
When we pulled up to the radio station, we were greeted by a collection of 10 children, waiting to welcome us with fragrant marigold garlands. For the next several hours, we talked about the project with the children, the team in charge of running the community radio statio, and Sashwati (Sash) Banerjee, the managing director of Sesame Workshop India, who had arranged the visit for us. We were also able to visit a nearby school, Prathamik Vidyalay, where the teacher uses Galli Galli Sim Sim content to educate her class. They proudly showed us the “hungry dustbin”, which they created after learning about the importance of properly disposing of garbage.
While we had a delightful time hearing Sash lead the children in rounds of Galli Galli Sim Sim songs or talk about their love for Chamki, a Galli Galli Sim Sim muppet, the most telling moment of the day came when Sash asked the children if they knew the number to call to hear Galli Galli Sim Sim episodes. Without missing a beat, the entire group broke into a chorus of “0-double 1-double 6-0-3-double 0-8-0”. Every child knew this number by heart and it was clear they used it on a regular basis. Moreover, the station managers told us that the kids transfer the knowledge they learn from Galli Galli Sim Sim to the parents who, in turn, become equally eager for GGSS content. On the day we visited, the equipment wasn’t working and parents were actually calling in to ask why they weren’t hearing Galli Galli Sim Sim on the air!
The village where Waqt ki Awaaz operates is characterized by foot paths that wind past livestock and tidy stone houses, most of which don’t have doors. The kids here were recently given laptops by the government, but there is no internet connection and they rarely get used for anything other than watching movies. Some families have radios, some even have television. But virtually every family has a mobile phone, and this means almost every family can access Galli Galli Sim Sim’s important messages simply by dialing 11 digits.
We listened to a sweet young girl explain how she always used to miss school because she kept getting sick, but then she started listening to Galli Galli Sim Sim and learned how to stay healthier. Now, she said, she rarely has to miss school and can learn more – just like Chamki, the muppet that champions education for girls. This was a small, personal, yet very powerful example of just what mHealth can mean in the lives of families in some of the poorest parts of the world. It was a compelling reminder of why we champion mHealth as an important solution for pressing global health challenges.