Samoan Obesity & IT

“Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest.” These are the immortal words of Long John Silver the one-legged, parrot-shouldered pirate in Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic is the ultimate swashbuckling adventure, full of marauding cut throats on the high seas… and weird and wonderful tales of foreign lands.

Robert Louis Stevenson travelled extensively in his short lifetime until he finally decided to settle in Samoa, where he wrote copiously about the Pacific Islands. However, whilst Samoa may conjure up a wealth of exotic images to foreigners, surprisingly, today it is subject to one of the worst ‘modern’ social problems… obesity.

Obesity is a serious issue throughout the Pacific Islands and American Samoa alone has the highest levels in the world. Recent WHO statistics showed 95% of the population is overweight. Whilst a news story in the middle of June reported that Samoa Air is actually modifying its seats to accommodate larger passengers.  Like many social problems, maybe technology could help provide the solution?

When we released a report titled “Robots, Tablets & Social Media: The Impact of Consumer Technology on Healthcare” this Spring we received a huge spike of interest from our Samoan audience. I was genuinely amazed to discover that 29% of IDG Connect subscribers in the region had downloaded a copy. This prompted me to investigate further and learn that healthcare and consumer technology could be the perfect fit for Samoa.

At the moment, around 60% of Pacific Islanders have access to a mobile phone and the figures are climbing steadily. Mobile internet is also taking off at a phenomenal rate and in tandem with this; social media is rapidly on the rise. By November 2012 there were around 700,000 Facebook users across the region; and over 150,000 of them had signed up that year. In fact Samoa and Papua New Guinea proved Facebook’s third and fourth-largest per capita country growth markets showing membership growth rates of over 50%, only placing them behind Vietnam and Japan.

The growth trajectory of Facebook is the same around the world - once communities do start joining, everyone signs up. And for all the negatives, these mass online spaces provide the ideal platform to share knowledge and raise awareness.  Obesity places a lot of stress on the health service – Samoa recently received another $7.8m hand out from New Zealand.   Yet galvanising social awareness through social media could be one extremely useful way to help tackle the issue. Technology is already being used to raise sexual health awareness amongst a conservative population and digital media is starting to take off in the political sphere, maybe obesity is next?

A Lowy Institute Analysis research paper published last November, Digital Islands: How the Pacific's ICT Revolution is Transforming the Region, stressed that “for the Pacific Islands region, some of the greatest opportunities are in mobile health applications, or ‘mHealth’ as it is called.”  It points to several initiatives across the region that are proving especially successful.  The report highlights the 13,000-strong service from the Vodafone Foundation in Fiji (Dr SMS), which allows subscribers to communicate with doctors directly and issues alerts. It also addresses the Papua New Guinea national mobile health (mHealth) program which was launched by Population Services International (PSI) in July 2012.

Searching around the web I couldn’t find any Samoan social media groups on obesity yet. Nor could I track down any tech initiatives which are specifically attempting to tackle this problem. However, the interest in our report highlighted a clear need… so it seems likely creative local solutions will begin to emerge soon.

And finally, one J. Diamond has an interesting theory about the local Samoan weight problem. He believes that because the ancient Pacific Islanders were so highly skilled in ocean travel and “often undertook inter-island canoe voyages lasting several weeks” only the most obese would survive the journey.  Now fat seafarers may not be the first image that springs to mind… but it probably makes more sense than a one-legged man with a parrot on his shoulder yelling about bottles of rum!  


Are you based in Samoa? Please drop Kathryn Cave a note if you would like to share your experience.


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