How two men changed the world — a 10 year overnight success story

February 9, 2018
Written by Kieran McConville
Photo by Sam Strickland

Two young men walk into a room. They don’t know each other, they come from different cities, and they have entirely different careers. And then together they change the world. It happened. We know. We were there.

Two men

Clement Mwazambumba and Soyapi Mumba. © Sam Strickland (Concern Worldwide)

Unheard voices

From Steve Jobs to Lionel Messi, a long list of people who have been successful in their field all agree on one thing… overnight success takes a long time. We knew this ten years ago when we sat down and started drawing up a proposal for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which we hoped would move the needle in the critical area of maternal and child health. The idea was to tap into a chorus of unheard voices and seek innovative solutions to clear away obstacles preventing mothers and children from accessing essential healthcare in developing countries.

You could say it was a form of crowdsourcing.

People sit under a tree in India

A group of villagers gather under a mango tree in Orissa, India to discuss maternal and child health solutions.

Ideas.

The call went out across the streets and fields and hills and valleys of Malawi, Sierra Leone, India, Kenya, and Ghana. It went to entrepreneurs, parents, health professionals, students, academics, dreamers, bakers, farmers, truckers, techies, toolmakers – everyone and anyone had a stake in the game. There were workshops and presentations, experts and novices, judges and juries, drafts and iterations, prizes and incentives.

And eventually there were the ideas.

A contestant in the ideas competition registers using her fingerprint in Freetown, Sierra © Sam Strickland (Concern Worldwide)

Chosen from multiple thousands that ranged from the plainly impractical to the downright genius, these were the ones deemed to have the best chance of making a difference. Pilots were designed, people were mobilized, projects were implemented. And then…

Nothing happened.

An Innovations competition poster in the Kroo Bay slum area of Freetown, Sierra Leone © Sam Strickland (Concern Worldwide)

At least not much that would make the world sit up and say “Wow!” Because fundamental change rarely involves drama. It usually comes about through hard work and learning and iteration and more learning and more hard work. And advocacy and persuasion and disappointment and discussion. And eventually, if you’re lucky…

Something happens.

A healthcare revolution.

In January 2018 the Government of Malawi announced that they were rolling out a new nationwide “Health Center by Phone” service called “Chipatala Cha Pa Foni” (say it out loud… it’s fun!) People who need health advice or a basic diagnosis can call a toll-free number, talk to a professional, and often avoid long wait times at clinics or unnecessary journeys by foot through remote countryside.

It’s not a gimmick. It’s a small healthcare revolution.

Woman with headset and a touch screen answers calls at a call center

Call center operators at the district hospital in Balaka, Malawi. Photo: Kieran McConville

Chipatala Cha Pa Foni (say it again!) grew from two ideas which became one – thought up by Lilongwe-based software developer, Soyapi Mumba and Clement Mwazambumba, a local government health official from Zomba in the south. They entered our “Every one can save a life” competition back in 2010 and went through a rigorous process of judging.

Woman on mobile phone

Accessing the “Health Center By Phone” in Malawi. Photo: Kieran McConville

Success

Soyapi and Clement’s ideas were joined together and came to life in a storage room at the back of Balaka District Hospital. The service had three staff, two phone lines, and two PCs. Fostered and developed by a fantastic organization called Village Reach and funded by a variety of donors, the service has now become an integral part of official government health policy in Malawi. It will save a lot of time, money, and — most importantly — many precious lives.

It’s an eight year overnight success story.

Three men with a giant check

Dr Mhango of the Malawi Ministry of Health and Steven Zarnfaller of Concern Worldwide present Soyapi Mumba with his prize © Sam Strickland (Concern Worldwide)

Today Soyapi Mumba is Director of Public Health Informatics at Baobab Health Trust, He oversees development of electronic health surveillance and reporting systems for public hospitals in Malawi and recently gave a TED talk . Clement Mwazambumba is a Project Manager for World Vision in Malawi.

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