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Tech social enterprise Viamo was awarded a $4.3 million dollar investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Nov. 17 to improve and expand access to health information for vulnerable women and girls in key developing nations.

Creating the standard: Reaching remote, digitally disconnected communities

Viamo launched its first platform in Madagascar 13 years ago with Airtel as its partner. The vision was to create a service where people could access information in their moment of need, like when many of us call 9-1-1 or Google our symptoms.

Prior to the Viamo Platform, there was no alternative for remote populations, particularly women, to gain access to information about her child’s health when they would spike a fever in the middle of the night. There was no way for a mother to pull the information from the primary means of information sharing, her radio.

More than a decade later, “we’re excited to have developed an impact-first Platform that is delivering outcomes on a scale needed to reach the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals,” Viamo CEO David McAfee said.

Through the past decade:

  • The Viamo Platform has scaled to partnering with 20 major telecommunications companies disseminating the Platform’s tailored information to target listeners.
  • The Platform is now offered in 40 languages from Haiti to Uganda.
  • More than 500 million people have access to the services offered on the Platform.
  • More than 40 million people have used the Viamo Platform over 500 million times.

Viamo has negotiated with our telecommunications partners to offer more than $12 billion in minutes of free airtime, making the services free to our most vulnerable users.

The Platform is so popular for these communities that it has more users than Facebook in three countries. 

Virtually every major international development partner has contributed more than 3,000 pre-recorded livelihood-enhancing messages to the platform, from UNICEF to Earth Networks, from the World Health Organization (WHO) to Girl Effect.

Closing the gaps for the previously unreachable

Viamo has access to a unique and growing data set to uncover key preferences and experiences for how women and girls engage with mobile and digital to improve their health and livelihoods.

Viamo will use the foundations’ investment to enhance women and girls’ user experience and amplify access to Viamo’s proprietary interactive voice response (IVR) platform. The aim is to ultimately affect behavior change and improve health outcomes.

Through this work we aim to connect the Platform to products and services to address key gaps in the market and innovate new ways of reaching low-literate, low-income women.

The investment will focus on addressing critical connectivity gaps and innovating new ways to connect with reaching women and girls with low-literacy and low-income and ensure they become routine callers. These enhancements will particularly expand access to family planning and Neglected Tropical Disease initially in the three pilot countries.

This investment proposes to generate evidence to answer questions by rigorously exploring whether and how an enhanced platform can equitably improve family planning knowledge, attitudes and behaviors among key populations in Nigeria.

After robust research and evaluation, Viamo will scale these Platform enhancements up to seven additional markets in Africa.

Building on access for women

Women’s level of confidence to discuss family planning with a provider increased by nearly 30 percent and contraceptive prevalence increased by nearly 15 percent by using IVR, such as the Viamo Platform, one Nigerian study found.

With a focus on these women users and data like this, the generous support of the foundation will allow the Viamo Platform to transform in three vital ways:

  1. From a moment-of-need, to an everyday use-case.
    Our users have told us that they want to be trained, they want to be entertained, they want to have a reason to call the Viamo Platform on a daily basis to get valuable and trusted livelihood information. They don’t just want to be asking the question, they want to be briefed on “unknown-unknowns” that are likely to be useful.
  2. From an “information platform” to an “information, products and services platform.”
    Our users not only want to be informed about new health services, new seeds and new financial services, they want to have direct access to local providers through the Platform. We aim to provide “digital handshakes” between the Platform and call centers, points-of-sale, customer relationship management systems (CRMs) and databases of local trusted providers.
  3. From one-size-fits-all to a personalized experience.
    Our 40 million users don’t share the same needs. Some are farmers looking to improve their yields and grow their business through training and adapted financial services. Some are teens looking for a safe and discreet service to learn about family planning. Others are mothers of young children looking for everyday practical information about health, nutrition and education.

The Viamo Platform will create a unique experience for each user, reaching their most valuable content in the fewest clicks.

The future of improved knowledge access

Beyond this important transformation, we’ll be looking at making a few additional platform investments, namely:

  1. Sector-Focused Platform Expansion: The Viamo Platform has much of the information, products and services that our users need, but is far from complete. Viamo is seeking funders to continue to expand the network and content that our users demand – from agriculture and health, to financial services and education.
  2. New Platform Functions: Viamo’s partners and Platform users demand products and services that require additional functionality. Some of Viamo’s priorities include VoiceID functionality to access personal health and financial information, mobile money to transfer cash during humanitarian emergencies, or as incentives for program participation.
  3. Multi-Channel Approach:  While the majority of our users are on basic mobile phones, in many markets, users are transitioning from a basic connection to an internet-enabled one. In order to provide zero-rated access to reliable, tailored information, products and services, Viamo must develop web-based channels to help our users progress in their digital journey.
  4. Continued Platform Growth:  The Viamo Platform results in measurable life-improving benefits to our users. That’s why we’re seeking funding to expand the number of people our Platform is available to, the number of people in a given market who use the Platform and the number of benefits each user attains.