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Informal mhealth at scale in Africa : opportunities and challenges

Hampshire, Kate; Mwase-Vuma, Tawonga; Alemu, Kassahun; Abane, Albert; Munthali, Alister; Awoke, Tadesse; Mariwah, Simon; Chamdimba, Elita; Owusu, Samuel A; Robson, Elsbeth; Castelli, Michele; Shkedy, Ziv; Shawa, Nicholas; Abel, Jane; Kasim, Adetayo S


Kate Hampshire

Tawonga Mwase-Vuma

Kassahun Alemu

Albert Abane

Alister Munthali

Tadesse Awoke

Simon Mariwah

Elita Chamdimba

Samuel A Owusu

Michele Castelli

Ziv Shkedy

Nicholas Shawa

Jane Abel

Adetayo S Kasim


© 2020 The extraordinary global growth of digital connectivity has generated optimism that mobile technologies can help overcome infrastructural barriers to development, with ‘mobile health’ (mhealth) being a key component of this. However, while ‘formal’ (top-down) mhealth programmes continue to face challenges of scalability and sustainability, we know relatively little about how health-workers are using their own mobile phones informally in their work. Using data from Ghana, Ethiopia and Malawi, we document the reach, nature and perceived impacts of community health-workers’ (CHWs’) ‘informal mhealth’ practices, and ask how equitably these are distributed. We implemented a mixed-methods study, combining surveys of CHWs across the three countries, using multi-stage proportional-to-size sampling (N = 2197 total), with qualitative research (interviews and focus groups with CHWs, clients and higher-level stake-holders). Survey data were weighted to produce nationally- or regionally-representative samples for multivariate analysis; comparative thematic analysis was used for qualitative data. Our findings confirm the limited reach of ‘formal’ compared with ‘informal’ mhealth: while only 15% of CHWs surveyed were using formal mhealth applications, over 97% reported regularly using a personal mobile phone for work-related purposes in a range of innovative ways. CHWs and clients expressed unequivocally enthusiastic views about the perceived impacts of this ‘informal health’ usage. However, they also identified very real practical challenges, financial burdens and other threats to personal wellbeing; these appear to be borne disproportionately by the lowest-paid cadre of health-workers, especially those serving rural areas. Unlike previous small-scale, qualitative studies, our work has shown that informal mhealth is already happening at scale, far outstripping its formal equivalent. Policy-makers need to engage seriously with this emergent health system, and to work closely with those on the ground to address sources of inequity, without undermining existing good practice.


Hampshire, K., Mwase-Vuma, T., Alemu, K., Abane, A., Munthali, A., Awoke, T., …Kasim, A. S. (2021). Informal mhealth at scale in Africa : opportunities and challenges. World Development, 140, Article 105257.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 19, 2020
Online Publication Date Jan 26, 2021
Publication Date 2021-04
Deposit Date Jan 26, 2021
Publicly Available Date Jan 27, 2021
Journal World Development
Print ISSN 0305-750X
Electronic ISSN 1873-5991
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 140
Article Number 105257
Keywords Mobile health; Informal mhealth; Community health workers; Ghana; Malawi; Ethiopia
Public URL
Publisher URL


Published article (486 Kb)

Copyright Statement
© 2021 The Authors. Creative Commons Licence: Attribution 4.0 International License. See:

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