Mobile Communications

Cambodia Uses Voice Tech to Reduce Infant Mortality

A simple yet highly effective use of interactive voice response (IVR) technology is helping to save new-born babies’ lives in Cambodia. The country suffers from unacceptably high levels of both infant and maternal mortality – in fact, according to information from the Australian government (one of the largest donors to a UNICEF infant immunisation programme in the country), Cambodia has one of the highest mortality rates among both infants and mothers in Asia.

Although infant mortality has reduced significantly in the past 10 to 15 years (in 2010, the Demographic and Health Survey in the country found that the rate had come down from 95 to 45 deaths per 1,000 live births between 2000 and 2010), neonatal mortality – in the first 28 days of the baby’s life – account for around half of all these deaths. Compare this to Australia, where around six infant deaths per 1,000 live births happen each year – and maternal deaths are so rare statistics are negligible.

There is a dichotomy between these alarming statistics of basic human need, and the extremely high mobile phone penetration amongst the population. Data from the CIA shows that in 2012, there were 19.1 million mobile phone users in Cambodia, ranking it 53rd in the world in terms of mobile phone penetration.

It makes sense, therefore, to harness this enthusiastic uptake of mobile technology for the elemental purpose of trying to help more babies survive. One such attempt to try to reduce this very high level of neonatal mortality in Cambodia uses technology to help and educate new mothers remotely – via their mobile phones. A Czech NGO called People In Need (PIN) has developed a system – ‘Baby Village Care’ – using IVR for midwives to help new mothers care for their newborn babies once they are back home.

The midwife registers the mother’s mobile phone number after the birth of her baby. During the first month after the delivery, the mother then receives a series of seven pre-recorded messages on her phone at appropriate points of these early newborn days, with important, timely information about the health of her baby (for example, keeping the umbilical cord area clean, keeping the baby warm, and information about how to breastfeed successfully).

PIN undertook research to gain an understanding of the household set-up in the initial project area to ensure the messages were clear and had a warm tone to reassure the new mothers. The research also meant that both male and female voices were used for the messages, as research discovered that not all mothers owned their phones; many actually relied on the handsets of their husbands. Having both male and female voices also meant that fathers would, hopefully, be more receptive to the information and more hands-on with their babies and supportive of their wives.

Working within the IVR infrastructure of the USAID-funded SPICE programme (Structuring Partnerships for an Innovative Communications Environment), the neonatal mobile phone system developed by PIN uses Verboice, an open source IVR tool which was developed by another NGO, InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters).

At the moment, the project is only taking place in the Kampong Tralach district in Kampong Chhnang Province, in the centre of Cambodia, but due to its success, it’s likely to be extended to large areas of the country. And because it uses voice technology, it’s ideal to reach and help all vulnerable new mothers regardless of their location or levels of education or literacy. It’s effectively a 21st-century version of the childcare advice and information previously passed down verbally from generations face to face.  

Javier Sola of the Open Institute, which helped facilitate the project, says: “This project could help people in regions inhabited by indigenous communities, who speak languages other than Khmer, and who do not have a writing system, so voice is the only way that it is possible to communicate with them.”

The increasing availability of smartphones in Cambodia has also presented the opportunity of developing an app for the pre-recorded messages to new mothers using self-IVR, which the Institute has developed in the last year. All messages are recorded in this app and are delivered at relevant points in the first month to the mother without her needing to physically make a phone call.


For more information, take a look at the demo.


Soraya Moeng is a London-based journalist and editor with over 15 years' experience across a wide range of sectors. Formerly deputy editor of Financial World, she has also worked as a radio journalist, charity editor and copywriter for a number of blue-chips. Follow Soraya on Twitter @moeng_s


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Soraya Moeng

Soraya Moeng is a London-based journalist and editor with over 15 years' experience across a wide range of sectors. Formerly deputy editor of Financial World, she has also worked as a radio journalist, charity editor and copywriter for a number of blue chips. Follow Soraya on Twitter @moeng_s

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