Cape Town — South Africans are already adept at using cellphones for talking, sending text messages and downloading soccer scores or funky ring tones.
So far, though, there has been surprisingly little effort to marry this technical know-how with public health campaigns.
That looks set to change, thanks to an innovative idea from the Cape-based nonprofit organisation Cell-Life.
The company has already developed cellphone technology to help health-care workers to monitor HIV patients and devised an electronic tracking system for anti-HIV medication dispensed by hospitals and clinics.
It now plans to use cellphones to provide people with cheap and readily available data about HIV, the virus that causes Aids.
SA has one of the world's worst HIV/Aids epidemics, with about 5,5-million people living with the disease. It also had the best cellphone infrastructure in Africa, said Cell-Life GM Peter Benjamin.
"SA has a bizarrely high level of cellphone usage -- about three-quarters of teens and adults have cellphones, and those that don't can borrow one from a neighbour or colleague," he said. This population group is most affected by HIV/Aids.
Backed by R5,5m from the Vodacom Foundation and the Raith family trust, Cell-Life has signed agreements with several key organisations doing work on HIV/Aids education and awareness to develop text, sound and visuals that will be provided free to users.
The groups include the Community Health Media Trust, which produces the SABC television programme Beat It; Mindset, which produces education programme broadcast to schools and clinics via satellite; the AIDS Consortium, the Treatment Action Campaign, and Durban-based HIV network Hivan.
Cell-Life is also in talks with Soul City, the government's main HIV-prevention campaign Khomanani, LoveLife, Lifeline and the South African Business Coalition on HIV/Aids.
"We are not a rival to any of these groups -- we are a neutral platform for them to get their messages out," said Benjamin. "They will still retain copyright and branding .
"In much the same way that people currently send an SMS to one of a bank of phone numbers listed in brochures advertising ring tones, an individual would be able to send a free " call me" SMS to a number providing answers to common questions about HIV."
There were already a raft of companies making money from cellphone wireless application services ranging from love poems to kissing tips, but very few of them were doing social welfare or community work, said Benjamin.
Cell-Life intended developing systems using SMS and cheaper chat-style systems that relied on general packet radio services (GPRS) such as MXIT. In addition to text messages, it planned to experiment with voice, cellphone games, and video.
Services would include answers to basic questions like "I've just been diagnosed with HIV -- am I going to die?" and more complex medical queries about drugs and their side effects.
"To the best of our knowledge, nothing like this has been tried elsewhere in the world," said Benjamin. Cell-Life intends starting with a pilot project in Western Cape and a rural site that has yet to be identified.