An Elephant in Stilettos Stood on my Face

Does that sound a bit dramatic? Well, working on government projects can sometimes turn you into a bit of a drama queen. But it’s a drama worth detailing.

For the last three or so months, Western Cape Labs, the company I lead here in South Africa, has been consumed by a project called MomConnect. The experience has been in equal part exhilarating and exhausting, kinda like a 400M track race. Can you remember that one from your school days? Once around the track, where you couldn’t work out whether to sprint or jog, and when you were done felt like puking?


MomConnect has been built to enable registration of pregnant mothers in a central database, then to provide them with valuable services which will improve maternal health.

At launch they are registered via a free-to-use USSD code, *134*550#. For those unfamiliar with USSD, it’s a mode of interactive communication through the exchange of messages of up to 160-characters. It’s available on any phone connected to a GSM network, from the dumbest Nokia to the smartest iPhone. Traditionally used by network operators for tasks such as balance checking, alongside SMS it has grown to be used to provide services as diverse as gaming, chat, agricultural advice and health information in parts of the world where the mobile Internet or app economy is not yet dominant.

Over the last year and half my team has come to specialise in building and maintaining these types of applications by working extremely closely with the Praekelt Foundation. The Foundation is the giant on whose shoulders we stand for this project from both a technical and organisational perspective. They are authors of the Vumi platform on which the highly scaleable Vumi Go service MomConnect runs. Without the thousands of man hours they’ve put into the core platform we could never have scaled from hundreds (during pilot) to tens of thousands of connected users in week one or have hoped to deal with the target of more than 1 million moms! They are also the primary service designers and the organisational hub around which a lot of the loose pieces of this project are pulled together for delivery. Sure, they’re going to get little credit for being “the brains of the project” in the press, but welcome to the political world of politics.


The reason for the dramatic title is that I have never worked on a project with such an unbalanced developer:project manager ratio. The bulk of the project-specific code for this was written by me and the other full-time member of my team, George.

Most days on this project I’ve been doing 5–7 hours of project communication, admin and planning and the same number of hours of coding. As someone who loves to Get Stuff Done I have found it unbearable at times.

Sometimes I’ve sat in on Yet Another Skype Call with my head literally on the desk wondering if it’s all worth it.


The answer to that came quickly after we went into pilot. One of the services that registering the pregnant moms enables is access to a service desk/helpline. In order to power up a fully featured, user-friendly solution swiftly we built a bridge between an existing solution called Snappy and the SMS channel Vumi Go provides.

I really wish I could show you the actual evidence of why it’s all worth it, but we’re dealing with information that is highly sensitive and personal, so the details will remain unpublished. However, the questions asked by users of the service reveal an astounding lack of health education and a wonderful curiosity about what is happening to them.

The interesting challenge is going to be extracting the evidence that the millions of SMS’s that will be sent to the expectant mothers over the next few years have improved that knowledge level, improved maternal health and improved quality of care.


On our way back from our road trip to the MomConnect launch, Praekelt Foundation’s Chief Engineer, Simon de Haan said something that really stuck with me:

“the crazy thing is that I would never ever work for the kind of company that builds these kinds of systems in Europe”

This is equally true for me: I’ve spent time working alongside those big system integrator types before in past jobs, and have zero interest in being part of them!

George, who I mentioned worked on this (and committed 50% of the code according to GitHub) was a full-time civil engineer in February. Now he helped build what could be one of the leading drivers of reduction in maternal health issues this country has ever seen.


This links perfectly to my final point. My last post set out to answer the question “Is Cape Town lacking digital challenges?” and closed with a promise to chronicle those I discover. I failed at that. However, the main reason is that I’ve been too busy with my own! They’re here! They’re fun! They’re scary! Get on with it!


I’m grateful for many things at the moment. Firstly, my patient and loving wife, Lydia, who put up with me crawling into bed at 2am and fidgeting around unable to sleep. For my kids, Noah, Grace, Reuben and Isaac who lose me being mentally present (even if physically there) during pushes to finish these things. For the wonderful Praekelt project team who pass these opportunities on to us and attempt to manage and support us to complete our jointly agreed goals! To the donors who fund this crazy project and enable us to prove to the South African taxpayers that we should fund this ourselves. Lastly, to Adrianna who is attempting to help an Englishman master his own language by fixing all the dangling participles.