By Joanne Peter, Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action

This blog is part of our Innovation Working Group Program series, highlighting the impact mobile technology is having on global health and development around the world. Learn more about the twenty-six mHealth projects funded under the IWG grant program here.

mamababy-largeIn August 2013, Mark Zuckerberg announced the launch of, a global partnership that aims to make affordable Internet access available to the two-thirds of the world that is not yet connected. Mobile phones have been identified as a key tool to bridge the Internet access gap – according to Zuckerberg, this will be the next digital frontier.

Since its inception in 2011, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) has reached over 1.5 million new and expecting mothers with health information through their mobile phones. This progress is important, but the high costs of SMS and voice technology
can limit our ability to reach more women. As a result, MAMA’s partners have devoted a lot of time and energy to negotiate with mobile network operators (MNOs) in an attempt to obtain discounted rates – with occasional, but usually one-off success. For some time, MAMA has considered the idea of bundling our maternal and child health information with other mobile services in a way that MNOs might find more commercially compelling. Now, MAMA, BabyCenter (a pregnancy & parenting digital resource), and Praekelt Foundation (the lead
implementer of MAMA South Africa and an Innovation Working Group grantee) are finally seeing this idea come to fruition through a partnership with’s first offering is a package of Free Basic Services: a selection of essential services and information (in the areas such as health, education, finance, [JL1] and communication) offered to users via mobile web with no associated data charges. First-time Internet users are able to discover, explore, and benefit from the Internet – including maternal health information created by BabyCenter – with no financial burden. Praekelt Foundation founder, Gustav Praekelt explains the importance of this offering: “As developers of scalable, open source mobile technologies aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of people living in poverty, we believe that access to life-enhancing information is a human right.”

To make this possible, MNOs have to agree to waive all data charges associated with accessing’s Free Basic Services. Why would they do this? Perhaps because the target audience – in line with’s mission – consists of people who have never previously accessed the Internet, likely due to cost, lack of local language content, or lack of perceived need. By providing a risk-free introduction to the Internet via high quality, relevant, local language information, MNOs might ultimately gain a new market for their data services. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Free Basic Services launched to Airtel subscribers in Zambia in July as the first step in a planned multi-country rollout. Currently only about 30% of the total population accesses the Internet, but with 85% of the world’s population living in areas with existing cellular coverage, mobile phones have the potential to close that gap. When a mother accesses the Internet for the first time, MAMA, and its partners BabyCenter and Praekelt Foundation, hope to be there to inspire, equip, and support her with information on her pregnancy and child’s health​.

Key Takeaways:

  • ​​Two-thirds of the world’s population doesn’t have access to basic Internet services.
  •’s Free Basic Services (health, education, finance, information, communication) are offered to users via mobile web with no associated data
  • Praekelt Foundation, MAMA, and BabyCenter have partnered with to include high quality pregnancy and childcare information within this
    basic service package.

Follow #IWGImpact on Twitter for more updates from the IWG Catalytic Grant Program and @MAMAGlobal for more MAMA news.