Rwanda’s tech entrepreneurs use technology to tackle reproductive health challenges amongst youth

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) develops an innovation accelerator programme that is supporting young entrepreneurs in addressing reproductive health challenges in Rwanda. ‘Tantine’- an app developed by twins Sylvie and Sylvain Uhirwa – both medical students at the University of Rwanda. The app opens up a channel of communication on sexual and reproductive health issues to Burundian refugees living in Mahama Refugee Camp in the south of the country.

MAHAMA REFUGEE CAMP, RWANDA (RECENT) (UNFPA) – Young people in Rwanda face many barriers to sexual and reproductive health information making them vulnerable to diseases and unintended pregnancies; undercutting their ability to access education and employment.

But a phone and web application is hoping to change that, especially for hard to reach young people living in refugee camps.

Known as Tantine app, it was developed by twin Rwandan medical students Sylvie Uhirwa and Sylvain Muzungu Uhirwa. It aims to use technology to teach and give teenagers reproductive health information.

The two developers recently shared the app in Mahama camp in southern Rwanda, home to 50,000 Burundian refugees.

By using technology, teens can access reproductive health related information via online ‘aunties.’ Tantine will work with a team of medical professionals and psychologists to deliver reproductive health education, mentorship and counselling services to young people.

Sylvie and Sylvain have been training youth mentors living in Mahama Refugee Camp on how to use the app.

“For people in the camp to access the internet, they don’t have smart phones or they don’t have enough facilities. That’s why we thought of bringing those tablets and establishing a centre where they come and then access the internet in the camp. So we are going to equip them with those tablets and then a router with Wi-Fi, so that they can come in a quiet room and then they can go through our apps and website and they can ask different questions,” said Syllvie.

Tantine was developed through an innovation accelerator programme that is supporting young entrepreneurs, an initiative of the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA).

UNFPA says it hopes that this will inspire more people to use technology to find new approaches to tackle sexual and reproductive health challenges.

“You have also young people who are in the community who are not in schools. Those young people and youth, they also need that information. So you have really to have an approach which is holistic and which is also multi-sectoral so that at least each and every young person can have access to that information,” said Therese Karugwiza, a gender a human rights program specialist at UNFPA.

Another innovation supported by the programme is ‘Girl District’ – a creative and educational hub that produces comic books and education curriculums around sex education.

Part of Girl District’s outreach involves leading sessions in schools with girls on the topics of sex, relationships and reproductive health.

“We all know that things we watch influence what we feel, like movies, music videos, things like that, and in those movies and the books we read they like emphasize that, sometimes they emphasize that being a virgin is not cool,” said one unidentified student.

Conversations and comments and questions that come up in these classes are fed back into the Girl District comic book narratives – ensuring that the stories are relevant and relatable.

“What we want is to be real to the situation they face. We want to be able to talk to the girl who goes home to a stepfather that might be molesting her or doing things that she does not agree with. We want to be able to be relevant to a girl who’s just started dating. We have two girls who have just started dating, two months in a relationship, how do we stay relevant to their reality and not making decisions for them but making decisions with them,” said Girl district co-founder Nicky Dominique Uwase Alonga.

The programme has received funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) enabling UNFPA to tap into vibrant local networks of social innovators.

They work with regional implementing partners such as Imbuto Foundation to ensure that the programme grows and is sustainable.

“When it comes to sexual reproductive health, it’s still very tied up to the culture. And that takes time to be changed, but there is a will. There is a will in the government, there is a will in the education sector, and programs such as the iAccelerator are very key, they are very instrumental in shifting the dynamic because you are now in a dynamic where young people are not the ones who receive the information and they have to absorb the information, they actually go themselves, look for right information and share it to their peers. And I think we should encourage that not only in East Africa, but across the continent,” said Michaella Rugwizangoga, the Innovation Accelerator Project Officer at Imbuto Foundation.

The innovation accelerator has so far received 800 ideas from young people addressing sexual and reproductive health challenges across East Africa.