In this guest blog, Shona Jane Lee writes about some of the different themes, challenges and developments facing tech companies operating in the mHealth space. Shona is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and a Policy Intern at the Centre for Science and Policy at University of Cambridge, as well as being a very handy pool player (having claimed to be rubbish!) and an invaluable contributor to Cojengo strategy.

Innovation is a tough gig. Wherever you read headlines along the lines of “[technology X] took the market by storm”, or “the overnight success of [product Y]” etc., take a moment to consider the long, rocky, pothole ridden goat-path being traversed on a daily basis toward reaching these kinds of technological triumph. Firstly, let’s do away with some innovation clichés. Some of the best technological innovations haven’t been ‘light bulb’ or eureka moments, nor arrived in all their abridged glory to manifest themselves in the dream of a starry-eyed visionary, wracked with anxiety about how they could make the world a better place. Of course, in some cases blindingly simple solutions present themselves at opportune moments. But these are rare, and when they do come, the Sisyphean task of carrying them through to completion is often only rewarded after arduously watching them roll back and hit rock bottom several times. “Fail hard and fail quick,” they say in the business, if you can’t take a hit and learn from it you’re probably in the wrong business. I highly recommend Ken Banks’ The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator as a good starting point for reference for any budding social entrepreneur or techie with an idea to change the world. Luckily, bucking clichés is kind of Cojengo’s thing. You only have to look as far as where it all began for a refreshing impromptu start-up story…

Fast-forward to September 2014, where I find myself landing at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International, buzzing at the prospect of the flying visit I have planned with Cojengo, not to mention my maiden voyage to Kenya. To give some context to my visit, a little over a year ago I started my PhD at the University of Edinburgh’s INZI research group as part of their on-going work on African Trypanosomiasis and innovations in zoonotic disease control. My interests in innovative technologies for collecting, producing, and transforming epidemiological data for disease surveillance brought Cojengo to my attention, and after a chance introduction through a mutual connection I was fortunate enough to become one of their many collaborative partners. Cojengo is a prime example of the kind of Public-Private Partnership model that has rapidly become the flavour of the age, and as an alternative to the ICT4D approaches of old, it will be interesting to follow how this kind of partnership is played out between key stakeholders during critical phases of rolling out and scaling up their innovation.

From the very beginning Craig and Sami’s candid and open collaboration has granted me uniquely privileged access and insight into the continual negotiation and re-negotiation that takes place within the conventional narrative of technological development and implementation. Tagging along meetings with the Department of Veterinary Services in Nairobi, and observing the frank dialogue that emerges from a genuine and active collaboration between the public sector and industry toward achieving shared goals was eye opening to say the least. The relationship goes far beyond a mere business association, built on shared understanding of problems in the livestock sector’s data management and linkage, offering pragmatic approaches toward integrating solutions - not just technological, but managerial, logistical, even anthropological at times. One of the most powerful (and yet largely under-estimated) challenges of innovating in a hierarchically structured network of institutions and people is exactly that; people, and the way they function within their particular network -whether locally or globally- are inherently constrained and limited by the sum of their parts. The successful integration of a new technology into such systems therefore relies on a thorough understanding of the structure of these networks and how the actors within them function on a daily basis. The technology in question is undoubtedly important in determining the success of projects in scaling up beyond the pilot phase into tangible innovations. However the dominant force behind their triumph is the culturally informed decision making that underpins their project design processes. A recent review of mHealth projects in Africa suggested that the primary considerations for an effective project in the African context should centre on;

  • Good project design (adapted to the local context, promotion, education and awareness of the project, etc.)
  • Technology and resources (use local resources, capacity building, availability and maintenance)
  • Involvement of stakeholders (strong public-private partnership, multidisciplinary teams, political leadership, local champions) and
  • Government e-health/m-health department (program monitoring and evaluation, research, etc.)

Cojengo’s strength and key to success then will most likely be found in taking a human-centred, end-user approach that brings Veterinary professionals into the design process. The continual feedback loop from their input allows the technology to fledge from the workbench and into the field; sometimes flying, sometimes falling – but always landing with a new perspective. It is important to remind yourself in this business (because it can often be muted by the ‘fail fast and hard’ mantra) that learning from success is just as valuable as learning from failure, and recognising what works in one setting or context may not apply to the next, is fundamental to the flexibility and ultimate survivability of an idea. I hope to be following the adoption of Vet Africa as a technology of livestock disease surveillance and animal health data management from an ethnographic approach over the coming months. Judging by the market Cojengo are tapping into, this could be a novel opportunity to see an mHealth for One Health innovation take flight. I for one look forward to seeing where it lands.