Travel has shrunk the world. It has opened countries to new opportunities beyond their borders. With this, it has also provided a platform for diseases to cross borders, unnoticed, and with devastating effect. The current COVID-19 pandemic, the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) attack are testament of this reality.
As countries race to keep their borders safe from infections such as the Coronavirus, access to information of these ailments has become crucial and necessary in the interconnected and now cautious world.
A service to forewarn of an outbreak and how to avert infections has become critical to fill this gap and to help, particularly travelers, to stay out of harm’s way. Safiri Smart (translates to ‘travel smart’) is a service that promises to “safeguard your health while you travel.”
The joint initiative by Kenya’s Ministry of Health, Korea Telecom and Safaricom was started in 2015 in response to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak. Besides Kenya, the initiative has also been rolled out in Ghana and Laos and is part of Korea Telecom’s Global Epidemic Prevention Project (GEPP).
It was launched in Kenya just a few months before COVID-19 arrived. Gradually, it has become a great source of information for travelers since the pandemic was first confirmed in Kenya in March 2020.
“This is a noble, innovative solution that contributes to strengthening the Government’s health security agenda of protecting Kenyans from notifiable infectious diseases of concern. Its overall objective is to enhance disease surveillance across borders to limit illness and death [from such infections],” says Dr Kadondi Kasera of the Ministry of Health’s Public Health Emergency Operations Center.
He adds that the service is even more useful now, with the resumption of international travel, since August.
“The world is reopening after the COVID-19 hiatus. This makes Safiri Smart a valid and relevant service. It is a case study of Public Private Partnerships with innovation at the center, further enriched by the COVID-19 experience. The pandemic has made it more believable for people who previously did not see the need,” Dr Kasera explains.
In addition to COVID-information, Safiri Smart provides updates on nine diseases, including plague and Marbug virus. The Ministry of Health maintains a database of disease outbreaks, as notified by the World Health Organization, and shares with the technical team at Safaricom to ensure the USSD service is updated.
Safiri Smart leverages on Safaricom’s roaming system to warn subscribers who travel of notifiable infectious disease in their destinations.
It is domiciled in Safaricom’s Technology for Development (T4D) Unit within the Corporate Affairs Division, which develops sustainable innovations that address societal challenges. The T4D team designs, co-creates or develops products and services that deliver social impact in health, education, agriculture and other areas.
So far, 318,000 subscribers have opted in for the service. According to Violet Njuguna, a Product Manager in the T4D Unit, there was a spike in Safiri Smart subscriptions after the COVID-19 outbreak.
“People wanted information on this disease and Safiri Smart was a source. This made them subscribe to the service,” she explains.
Safiri Smart was eventually linked to the 719 COVID-19 hotline to supply users with information on the disease.
“Our DNA at Safaricom is about transforming lives. It fits well with the goal of this project, which is safeguarding the health of Kenyans [as they travel],” Ms Njuguna says.
How it works
To opt in for the service, Safaricom subscribers only need to dial *265# on their phones before they travel abroad. As long as the roaming service is activated, they are plugged in for a heads up of any infectious disease outbreaks. This, they get alongside a welcome message to the roaming network once they arrive at a destination.
For each disease, the information includes how long from when once is exposed to an infection until when they get symptoms (incubation period), precautions to protect themselves, and where to seek help.
In addition, the system also checks-in on subscribers, who got a notification about an outbreak, at the end of the disease’s incubation period. This message seeks to help them assess whether they exhibited symptoms and reminds them where to seek help.
A final message is sent when they finally return home and connect back to the Safaricom network. At this point, subscribers are again asked how they are doing and where to get help.
Dr Kasera explains that the message has the Emergency Operations Center hotline, on the assumption that the traveler will be back by the end of the incubation period. For longer trips, there is an email contact to link them to help.
“We are continually seeking partnerships with other telcos to strengthen Safiri Smart and improve the options for subscribers to seek help,” Ms Njuguna adds.
“We took GEPP globally after it helped to successfully control the second wave of MERS in Korea. This demonstrates the value that Public-Private Partnerships can bring. It also shows how collaboration across sectors is important in addressing public health issues,” says Woori Cho of Korea Telecom.
“Through this service, we are able to track where our subscribers have been, whether it was in an epidemic-prone area, and to offer help,” says Nicholas Mwenga, a senior engineer and technical lead for the project.
How it all began
The journey towards rolling out Safiri Smart started when Korea Telecom reached out to Safaricom. This sparked conversation that culminated in the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two entities that later morphed into a bilateral engagement that saw Kenya’s ministries of ICT and Health eventually roped in. The platform was launched in December 2019.
The next phase is to extend Safiri Smart to cover domestic travel and to issue warnings about outbreaks of infectious diseases within the country. This phase will also see the service used in county health departments.
“Our intention is also to onboard other telcos in the country and across the world so that all Kenyans can enjoy this service by being aware and taking charge to travel safely. This is aligned to SDG number 17 that speaks to the role of partnerships,” says Ms Njuguna.
“I am excited by how far Safiri Smart has come. We look forward to working with our partners to implement other phases as it evolves. This platform will add value to the fight against epidemics,” says Mr Mwenga.