Date Published: March 29, 2018
Author(s): Surona J. Visagie, Rebecca Matter, George M. Kayange, Mussa Chiwaula, Mark Harniss, Gubela Mji, Elsje Scheffler.
A pilot project to develop and implement a mobile smartphone application (App) that tracks and maps assistive technology (AT) availability in southern Africa was launched in Botswana in 2016. The App was developed and tested through an iterative process. The concept of the App (AT-Info-Map) was well received by most stakeholders within the pilot country, and broader networks.
The unmet need for assistive technology (AT) in developing countries is around 85% and is growing because of the changing demographics of disease (Harniss, Raja & Matter 2008; Matter et al. 2017). In sub-Saharan Africa, critical issues for persons with disabilities1 are lack of information and knowledge on the availability of AT products and services, lack of funds and a shortage of service providers. These challenges result in low acquisition rates of AT (Matter et al. 2017), which affect function and community integration negatively [Borg, Larsson & Östergren 2011; World Health Organization (WHO) 2014].
The project was officially launched by SAFOD in Gaborone on 19 April 2016, after a preliminary meeting at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town (http://assistivetechmap.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/AT-Info-Map_CapeTown_summary_final.pdf). Presentations to introduce the project were followed by an open discussion about the project and AT in general. Key stakeholders involved in AT provision including government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), DPOs and private sector AT suppliers were invited. The launch was followed by meetings with the stakeholders to further gather reactions to and feedback on the project. This space afforded the project leaders with valuable guidance on how to proceed. The launch, development process and roll-out continued throughout 2016 and into 2017 as shown in Figure 1.
Including persons with disabilities and other stakeholder groups in the design and testing process of the App was seen as positive by participants and SAFOD. Developing a mobile application with specific focus to benefit persons with disabilities, an often neglected minority (Visagie & Swartz 2017), was also hailed as empowering. Persons with disabilities, service providers and representatives from NGOs and DPOs were enthusiastic about the App and indicated that they would use it and would raise further awareness on it among their networks. They felt that the App addressed a gap in their current knowledge and would assist them to identify AT and suppliers in a quick and efficient manner. They enthused about the simplicity of the App and the location feature, which could assist them in determining the proximity of suppliers. They also mentioned that with the App they can order directly from suppliers and thus save the cost of distribution intermediaries. Finally bringing together AT stakeholders through the project has helped to shine light on access to AT in Botswana.
The majority of persons with disabilities are not buying AT directly from suppliers. They are connected to AT through a private, public or civil society sector intermediary. Persons with disabilities, who are often severely affected by unemployment and poverty (Hanass-Hancock et al. 2017), were also less likely to own or have access to smart phones and mobile data, which is costly in Botswana. Apart from data cost, some people could not download the App because they did not have enough space on their phones.
While not a complete solution, this App may assist in linking AT users and suppliers in a more efficient manner. The initial plan of developing an App that can be used to track stock in real time was not feasible. However, the simple directory of AT that was developed is of value to AT users, buyers and suppliers and is easier to maintain and therefore more sustainable. The project and App might also assist in the development of a broader and deeper knowledge base on AT in southern Africa. Financial sustainability is a challenge that should be focused on from the very start in planning projects of this nature.