Kenya’s Totohealth seeking $300k for pan-African expansion

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Kenyan startup Totohealth, which launched in March of last year and uses SMS technology to help reduce maternal and child mortality, is looking to raise another US$300,000 in funding as it looks to expand its operations to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Totohealth, which has already raised US$60,000 in funding, believes its success in its pilot market of Kenya means it is ready to roll out elsewhere.

The startup’s platform has certainly proven popular. Disrupt Africa reported earlier this month Totohealth emerged the overall winner of the Innovations Awards at the Connected East Africa event in Diani. And with more than 6,000 Kenyan parents registered on the platform, it is clearly attracting users as well as funding and awards.

Malele Ngalu, marketing director of Totohealth, told Disrupt Africa the idea for the business had emerged when one of Totoheath’s co-founders Felix Kimaru spent some time volunteering in the maternal sector.

Ngalu said Kimar had realised that many interventions were happening far too late to have any chance of improving medical conditions amongst parents and children.

“We asked the parents why they did not bring the children in when they saw they had a problem, and they said they didn’t know there was one,” he said.

Totohealth was thus born, with the co-founders building a platform able to advise parents on what signals to look for at certain times for certain illnesses, all the way until a child’s fifth birthday.

“We were able to develop a platform to enable a parent to monitor the pregnancy and the health of the child,” Ngalu said.

The Totoheath platform sends mothers two SMSs each week – one tailored towards the health of the child and another towards the health of the mother – with the information contained dependent on the specific part of the cycle the parent is currently in.

“For example when a child is one year old we talk about flat foot, so we say if your child’s ankle is bent inwards it could be flat feet,” Ngalu said.

Parents then respond “yes” or “no” as to whether they or the child are exhibiting the symptoms detailed in the SMS, with Totohealth then able to act on that information.

“We have a full-time medical doctor, it comes into a central health desk. We partner with organisations within the maternal space, and hospitals and health depositories, where we register the mother. And we refer them to a particular doctor at a particular hospital,” Ngalu said.

Totohealth currently has six partner organisations in six counties, having just launched in Garissa, and is in the process of finalising its launch in Mombasa.

“There are good things that we play a central role in. There are so many organisations that do maternal outcomes but they don’t have one tool that they can do that on. So we offer this dashboard to the organisations and allow them to monitor parents within that area,” he said.

This is where monetisation comes in. The startup licences the platform to organisations, with the fee dependent on how many mothers the organisation wishes to register. For 500 mothers or less, an organisation pays KES10,000 (US$105), with the agreement also allowing partners to send an extra two messages per month. Ngalu said this was deployed to good effect during a cholera outbreak in Kibera recently, where a partner organisation was able to use the platform to communicate with mothers and activate community volunteers.

Parents are able to sign up to the platform by filling out a form with partner organisations or by texting “Toto” to the shortcode 20209. Totohealth has just deployed 12 coordinators, and is targeting 12,000 more parents by the end of this quarter.

“The best way to take Totohealth out there is to have meetings with partner organisations in the maternal space. We are able first of all to approach the county, and they are able to give us access to the hospitals that work under them. Or we go direct to the organisations,” Ngalu said.

He said they also see a lot of parent-to-parent referrals.

“When we started out we registered about 2,000 parents on the platform, but these parents were able to refer another 4,000. We now have parents from 29 counties, even though we are only active in six. A mother from Samburu is signed onto the platform, but we are not in Samburu,” he said.

Part of the startups plans for the future is to begin to utilise the large amounts of data they have been able to collect on the maternal space.

“Our aim is to be able to have big data that can be used to influence policy and help government on maternal programmes. It is effective and based on real time information and can help our country reduce wastage and be more efficient,” Ngalu said.

And the positive benefits of Totohealth are there for all to see. Ngalu said partner organisations are sold on it once they see the difference between mothers on the platform and those not on it. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends four visits during pregnancy, but 80 per cent of mothers in Kenya do not make it to the fourth visit. Of mothers on Totohealth, 96 per cent do all visits.

“We keep up with the mothers and are able to identify defaulters,” Ngalu said, adding organisations are then able to use this information to check on the health of those parents.

“We not only provide the content but have a physical infrastructure that can enforce what we say in the messages,” he said. “It builds a community and everyone wants to be part of something. It is a whole community that we’re building.”

The startup has also moved into physical products, with its Totobox including everything a parents needs, from clothes to diapers, at a discounted rate due to partnerships with manufacturers.

Ngalu says the startup now aims to push for greater sustainability while rolling out in new countries.

“We are seeing decent growth. One of the counties has agreed to pay for 10,000 parents. That translates into millions of shillings and if we can get more to do that we will see more sustainability,” he said.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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