FamilyConnect equips Iganga mothers with maternal knowledge

UNICEF innovations for good health

By Joachim Buwembo
UNICEF innovations for health
UNICEF Uganda/2017/Adriko
14 May 2018

For Sulaina Kakungulu who has been a Village Health Team (VHT) member in Bukobooli village of Iganga District for four years, one question had always been difficult to answer convincingly: In a country where already many health-related programmes are running, the targeted population tend to ask, “What is in it for us?”

This question is always asked whenever a new project is introduced in a local area. The answers to it may not be readily available. But Kakungulu does not have this problem when introducing FamilyConnect to women and their husbands because the answer is easy: “Better health for your baby and yourself,” she answers them.

I explain to them that there are many providers but you the consumer are one, so you need information to seek the right care

Kakungulu says

Iganga is one of twelve districts where the Uganda Ministry of Health with support from UNICEF, is implementing FamilyConnect a mobile based tool, to help achieve better maternal results. FamilyConnect is a tool that uses SMS and mobile phone short codes (USSD) to enable women to be registered and access information during and after pregnancy to better manage their health and take care of their babies.

Once a woman has been registered on the FamilyConnect system, she receives informational messages corresponding to the stage of her pregnancy, and after delivery, on the stage of her baby up to when the child is two years old.

Kakungulu registers mothers on the FamilyConnect tool by visiting their homes, entering and submitting the mothers’ data on their simple phones. When she is not visiting homes, women also come to her house looking for “Kakungulu” to register them on FamilyConnect. It is her surname but being uncommon, it is the one everybody addresses her ‘Kakungulu’, without a title.

Kakungulu started registering people on the FamilyConnect tool mid-September 2017 and three months later, she has so far registered 37 pregnant women, plus 89 who were not yet pregnant but had intentions of becoming mothers in her village of Bukobooli.

In such a short time of starting registration, this is a significant achievement, because not everybody in the village has a phone. A woman who doesn’t have a phone, but wants to be registered is encouraged to find a cooperative person with a phone who can receive her messages for her and send back messages to FamilyConnect on her behalf.

Kakungulu is one of FamilyConnect’s pioneer 383 VHTs in Iganga district who received training in handling the mothers’ registration by FamilyConnect and Ministry of Health personnel earlier in the year. As soon as a person is registered as pregnant, the messages start arriving on her phone. She in turn sends messages about her condition. When the baby is born, the mother sends the word ‘Baby’ which allows the mother to start getting messages which cover newborn care, breastfeeding, family planning, recognizing symptoms for trouble and immunization schedules.

The use of the FamilyConnect tool is coordinated by Iganga District Local Government through the District Health Officer, Dr David Muwanguzi, who is quite enthusiastic about its potential. “We are very happy with UNICEF for making this innovation possible,” says Dr Muwanguzi. “By providing information more easily and directly to the beneficiaries, we are assured of better outcomes.”

Indeed, if there is a district that requires speedy outcomes to interventions, it is Iganga. For its indicators are some of the worst, according to the District Health Assistant, Dr Kharim Mwebaza. “Our fertility rate stands at 6.9 babies per woman, clearly above the national average of 6.2, and our district has about 125,000 women of reproductive age,” says Kharim. “While our infant mortality and teenage pregnancy are at a high 217 per 100,000 and 27 per cent respectively, our fourth ante-natal attendance is a low 29.4 per cent, yet at ANC1 it is 100 per cent.”

Such are the indicators for Iganga district and they can definitely be improved by providing more information to the women wherever they are. Since September, the number of FamilyConnect VHTs has grown from the initial 383 to 1,038. The plan is to grow the number of VHTs using FamilyConnect to between 1,500 and 2,000 so that there are some five VHTs per village in the district. The committed teams are on the ground registering more women, with the hope that the indicators for Iganga will improve months later as this tool takes root.

It is tough, but as more women begin to realise the difference the importance of getting this information to their health and that of their children, I get more energized to keep on keeping on

says VHT Kakungulu.
UNICEF Uganda/2017/Mbiri