WinSenga: The end of 19th century tech for Uganda?

A young innovative startup in Uganda has developed a smartphone app that provides a cheap ultrasound alternative thus re-inventing the 19th Century technology currently being used on the ground.

Cipher 256, the startup behind this innovation, provides East Africa and the world with WinSenga, a hand-held device for maternal care. This is capable of scanning the expectant mother’s womb providing an accurate report on the foetus’ age, breathing pattern, weight, position and heart rate. All this information is then sent to a mobile app which decodes the messages and recommends any actions to be taken.

How this came about

For decades the Pinard Horn, a trumpet-shaped instrument, has been used to check vital signs of unborn children in the womb. This device was named after the 19th century French inventor and can be very effective. However, it requires years of consistent training to achieve the desired results.

Aaron Tushabe, one of WinSenga’s developers witnessed this while working at Mulago, a general hospital in Kampala on a break before university. He was shocked by the long queues of patients waiting to be attended to by a suitably trained doctor. He was also acutely conscious that this was only the tip of the iceberg as many people in rural areas simply couldn’t afford to miss a day of work to visit a hospital.

Finally, months later, he and his friend Joseph Okello attended a hackathon as part of their IT degree where they got a chance to experiment with a solution.

The size of the problem

According to UNICEF, one woman dies every minute in developing countries from childbirth complications. Annually, eight billion children die either before they are born, during childbirth, or within their first week. The UN body concludes that to change this situation, it is vital to provide excellent care throughout pregnancy, delivery and postnatal periods.

The WHO statistics hold that there are 440 maternal deaths in Uganda per 100,000 live births. The same source reports that for every maternal death, there are at least six survivors with chronic and debilitating ill health. To make the situation even worse, the rural poor in Uganda have 45% more chances of dying than their urban counterparts.

This is because standards are not being adhered to. Professional medical advice to pregnant mothers is to attend prenatal care at least four times during the pregnancy. Women in Uganda (and in sub-Saharan Africa generally) barely make it. This is due to poverty - it requires about 20,000 Uganda Shillings or USD $10 to get attended at Mulago hospital, a luxury beyond the majority of women. These women face long distances to reach hospital which are dogged by understaffing and a lack of proper and effective medical equipment. WinSenga aims to provide a cheap, accessible solution.

What is WinSenga technology?

Just like the Pinard Horn, the device also has a plastic trumpet that is fitted with a very highly sensitive microphone. While the mother is being attended to, the device is placed on the lower abdomen it then connects to a Windows phone that runs the app. Depending on the transmitted information, the app performs an analysis of the health situation of the mother and the unborn child it then makes any necessary recommendations.

The analysis together with recommendations are then uploaded to the cloud so they can be accessed by doctors anywhere. Fundamentally, this allows less skilled medical practitioners such as midwives to provide basic maternal care on site without the need for mothers to travel.

As Tushabe puts it: “We envision a midwife being able to travel to rural areas on specific days, and then mothers could gather in, for example, a local church, then, the midwife could administer the antenatal diagnosis to all the mothers.”

This device has so much potential it ended up winning the Imagine Cup, sponsored by Microsoft and this is how it got its name. The “Win” comes from Windows and “Senga” is the local language for “auntie”, referring to a midwife.

With the help of a medic and advisor to UNICEF, the team built the device based on medical guidelines. “When I first heard the idea, I thought it was brilliant, but being software developers, they needed guidance on the medical component of the application,” offered the medic.

With the price of the smartphone going down steadily in the African market, the team also envisions a time when the service will get more and more accessible. In fact, an expanded version of the app for the mother during delivery and a WinSenga Plus for postnatal care are both in the offing.

“Communities that have healthy mothers are generally much more productive,” Joseph Okello concludes.


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Daniel Muraga

Daniel Muraga is an experienced online writer and communications professional based in Kenya.

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