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How healthtech startups are addressing Africa's mental health problem

In Africa, healthtech startups like Nguvu Health Clafiya, The Pocket Couch, Ahkili, and Shamiri, are providing access to mental healthcare.

These African startups are providing mental healthcare
Nguvu Health is one of the startups providing mental healthcare in Africa

Mental disorders are among the leading causes of disability in the world. One in four people (about 25% of the 7.7 billion people on earth) will be affected by mental or neurological disorders in their lifetime.

One in four Nigerians are suffering from some sort of mental illness, according to the World Health Organization (WHO); that is about 50 million people. This means there are more mentally ill Nigerians than there are people living in Ghana (32.8 million), and Norway (5.4 million) combined.  WHO estimates that less than 10% of mentally ill Nigerians have access to mental healthcare.

Every October 10, World Mental Health Day is commemorated to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilise efforts in support of mental health.

"Mental health is a basic human right for all people," says WHO. "Everyone, whoever and wherever they are, has a right to the highest attainable standard of mental health. This includes the right to be protected from mental health risks, the right to available, accessible, acceptable, and good quality care, and the right to liberty, independence and inclusion in the community."

Earlier this year, Nigeria signed the Mental Health Bill into law. The law has replaced the Lunacy Act of 1958 condemned by mental health experts as “outdated and inhuman”. “The law is the first step to ensuring that people with mental health conditions are free from torture, discrimination and other inhuman practices that plague the mental health system in Nigeria,” Hauwa Ojeifo, the founder of She Writes Women—a non-profit organization focused on providing mental health support to Nigerians, told Bendada.com.

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In February 2020, Hauwa became the first Nigerian with a mental health condition to testify at the National Assembly public hearing for the then Mental Health Bill.

Nigeria, like many other African countries, is still poorly equipped to tackle the challenges around mental healthcare. About 75% of those who need mental healthcare lack access, since the country has only 300 psychiatrists to treat its over 200 million population. Also, there are only eight federal neuropsychiatric hospitals in Nigeria.

What's the way forward? Across Africa, innovators are building healthtech startups to provide access to mental healthcare. In this article, we curated a list of some of these startups with operations in Nigeria, South Africa, Tunisia, Kenya and

Meet the heathtech startups providing mental healthcare to Africans

Nguvu Health

Founded in 2020, Nguvu Health is an on-demand e-mental health platform that provides Africans with access to teletherapy. Through its mobile platform, the Nigeria-based healthtech startup connects users with licensed clinical psychologists via in-app messaging or video calls, at a fee.

Currently, Nguvu Health has over 10,000 registered users across 104 countries. “Our plan is to ensure every African is educated on the importance of mental health and to sensitise Africans on how to develop strong mental health. We also want to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health in this part of the world,” says Juliet Odumosu, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Nguvu Health.

The word, Nguvu means Strength in Swahili, a widely used language in Africa.

The Pocket Couch

The Pocket Couch is a South African-based healthtech that provides an AI-enabled platform for organisations and learning institutions to enhance their team's mental wellbeing.

“The whole idea started with the intention of making mental health care as accessible as possible, especially in communities where accessibility is hard,” according to Onkgopotse Khumalo, who founded Pocket Couch in 2019. “We address the issues of cost, convenience and removal of stigma around mental health.”

The platform connects people with vetted mental healthcare professionals, resources and communities.

Ahkili

Launched in 2020 by Lamia Chouk, Ahkili provides focused well-being and mental health services for Tunisians. Ahkili has developed a mobile and web application specialised in psychological consultations and mental health care. This tool enables online booking and participation while guaranteeing the anonymity of the patients.

Lamia was inspired to start Ahkili while she struggled with multiple sclerosis, and it was difficult for her to access a good psychologist in Tunisia. Ahkili, means “tell me” in Arabic, it offers psychological support to isolated people, people struggling to cope with the pressures of cultural taboos, and people who feel helpless in the face of situations and/or pathologies that they do not understand. 

Shamiri Institute

“To make mental health affordable, personalized and integrated, we need to innovate and change the status quo,” says Tom Osborn, co-founder and CEO of Shamiri Institute.

Founded in 2017, Shamiri, which means Thrive in Swahili, has developed cost-effective mental health interventions (such as our Shamiri intervention) that not only improve youth mental health but also social and interpersonal relationships, and academic grades. Since its launch, the Nairobi-based startup has offered mental healthcare services to over 11,500 students in Kenya.

Clafiya

In 2021, Jennie Nwokoye founded Clafiya to increase access to primary healthcare services in Africa, starting with Nigeria. The healthtech startup offers a wide range of services including mental health services such as depression management, panic attacks/anxiety management and access to therapists. Using a USSD option, users do not need internet to access the platform.

Recently, Clafiya raised $610,000 in a pre-seed round to double down on its operation, which is currently available in Lagos and Enugu.


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This is an unexhaustive list. Feel free to reach [email protected] if you have any recommendations.

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