Highlights from the live Q&A session with Alain Nteff, co-founder of Gifted Mom.
Tran. By Kristie Wang
Alain Nteff co-founded an award-winning social enterprise, Gifted Mom, when he was just 20 years old. Gifted Mom’s mission is to prevent infant and maternal deaths by delivering critical health information to pregnant women and new mothers via mobile technology. The service uses SMS and voices messaging to deliver stage-based and customized notifications for pregnant women and new mothers, with information on topics like when to go for their next antenatal care session or baby vaccination. The platform currently impacts 6000 users in Cameroon, Mali, and Nigeria.
Alain has been named one of Forbes’ 30 most promising African entrepreneurs under the age of 30, and was awarded the first Queen’s Young Leader Award by Queen Elizabeth II. He was also a winner of Ashoka’s Future Forward Challenge.
What can aspiring entrepreneurs learn from Alain’s journey? To share insights from his path thus far, Alain joined Future Forward’s online course as a guest speaker during a Q&A session moderated by Sharon Wekwete of Ashoka. Here are the highlights:
On becoming a changemaker
Alain spoke about his journey launching Gifted Mom, and his moment of inspiration when he visited a close friend, a medical doctor, who was completing an internship at a rural hospital in Cameroon.
“When I visited him at the rural clinic, I was particularly shocked because that week the hospital had lost 17 premature babies. That was my first time in the maternal/infant health space, but the question on my mind was, ‘How come in 2012 with all of our technological developments–with people going to space!–why is infant mortality still a problem?’
The idea for a solution was sparked when after researching the problem, Alain discovered that there was “a simple reason” why infant mortality remained a problem in all developing countries–not just Cameroon.
“Governments and international NGOs have made medical resources available for pregnant women and mothers, but now the gap is that there are no channels to actually educate pregnant women and mothers about the available resources. Especially those women in rural and disconnected areas.
So the question we asked ourselves was, “How can we make health information available to every pregant woman and mother?” Today, the rate of mobile phone penetration is over 75 percent across Africa. We saw the mobile phone as a great channel [for education]. So that is how we developed an SMS and voice messaging application that sends life-saving and stage-based messages to pregnant women and mothers.
That was our humble beginning, and today we’ve just been working over each challenge that comes, to reach our goal of making information available to not just women in Cameroon, but across Africa.”
On mobilizing resources and gaining seed money for Gifted Mom
Reflecting back on his journey, Alain offered advice to young people who may not have the resources or connections to start their own projects immediately. Raised by single mother and without capital or connections, Alain was able to mobilize the resources to start Gifted Mom in three stages:
Being “in love with a problem”
“Whether you’re from a rich background or a modest background, it’s all about whether you are in love with a problem. If you don’t have stable food for the next 6 months, are you still going to be working on that problem? We’re in love with the problem we’re solving. That is the driving force.”
Leveraging the digital economy
Alain discussed the way that the internet is lowering barriers to information, and thereby making low-cost solutions more accessible for young people with ambitions to start a project.
“The digital economy is key for young people today. You can start a company by using the resources provided by the digital economy at a lesser price. What do I mean by this? We simply went to the Internet, [asking] ”‘Who can we get phones from so that we can scale Gifted Mom nationwide across Cameroon?” With the internet today, young people can have access to information that our parents did not have.
I looked on the internet to find out what other people were doing when it comes to maternal and infant health, and how I could get seed phones to scale Gifted Mom. So use the internet and look at what others are doing and how you can develop your business. This is going to provide you with a low cost means of starting.”
Approaching brand sponsors.
While funding is a key barrier for young Africans seeking to start a business or social enterprise, Alain pointed out that, “this is the best time to be a young person in Africa,” because of the rising amount of resources being made available to solve problems.
“Right now Africa has huge funding opportunities. The very first person who gave us a check was the Anzisha Prize, hosted by the MasterCard Foundation. This was the seed capital, and it came from just searching on the internet.”
On overcoming resistance to putting young people in charge
As a young entrepreneur, Alain has faced challenges in terms of defying expectations based on his age. When asked about how young people can overcome resistance they might face when trying to make an impact, he emphasized that the challenges will be many but each one can be overcome–such is the nature of entrepreneurship. He also noted that gaining recognition from outside sources helped Gifted Mom build credibility.
“One thing that helped us was really the awards. They opened doors for us across Africa. We were endorsed by the Queen of England. It brings credibility, and it gets people to trust in your solution.
If you are a young person out there trying to build a business, always try to look for opportunities. Articles about your project published online, participating on courses like this one from Ashoka add to your credibility.These are the small things that, at the end of the day, make people listen to you.”
Alain discussed many more topics during the live session, including skills needed by all young entrepreneurs and his views on whether Africa was truly rising, and what the changing landscape means for aspiring young Africans. Watch the archived event for the complete conversation.