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Teaming up

Cambridge MBA alumni reunite to help provide COVID-19 information through the World Health Organization.

Man using coronavirus health app.

A partnership between Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS) alumni helped spark the launch of the World Health Organization (WHO) HealthAlert on WhatsApp around the world.

Gini Arnold
Gini Arnold

Virginia (Gini) Arnold (MBA 2009), co-founder of the WHO’s [email protected] (BHBM) programme, and Chiara Kunnie (MBA 2017), the Business Development Manager at non-profit healthtech organisation Praekelt.org, met in a Cambridge Judge-related consulting project.

Fast forward to March 2020 and their relationship helped WHO and Praekelt.org to launch one of the most widely used platforms to inform millions of people around the world about COVID-19 (coronavirus) via WhatsApp in multiple languages.

The story begins in 2010, when Gini consulted with Vodafone London during her Global Consulting Project as part of her MBA programme. ”The experience demonstrated to me the power of mobile technology to improve people’s lives,” she says. “Most people in the world have a mobile phone and I was keen to see how we could turn this into a health tool, to provide messages and advice on the world’s biggest health issues directly to people’s phones”. 

Chiara Kunnie
Chiara Kunnie

Inspired by the opportunity of mobile, Gini co-founded WHO’s BHBM programme in 2013 in partnership with the International Telecommunication Union. The programme leverages SMS technology to address noncommunicable disease risk factors by educating people via their mobile phones to make healthier lifestyle choices.

In developing BHBM, Gini looked at other organisations operating in the digital health space and encountered Praekelt.org, which harnesses the power of communication for improving health and health systems. Gini reached out to classmate Helen Graham (MBA 2009), the Head of Talent at Praekelt.org, to learn more about Praekelt.org’s experience in developing mobile health programmes.

In 2018, Chiara – who had worked at Praekelt.org prior to the MBA – met Gini whilst part of the annual WHO Global Consulting Project offered by Gini’s team at WHO. Following her MBA, Chiara returned to Praekelt.org, where her team explored a partnership with WHO to develop and test a WhatsApp-based version of BHBM.

Then, in March 2020, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO. South Africa had just had its first few cases of COVID-19, and Praekelt.org (using their Turn.io platform) had developed a digital solution for the National Department of Health to counteract the spread of misinformation called HealthAlert – which disseminates accurate information to the public via WhatsApp at population scale.

Chiara reached out to Gini to gauge interest in rapidly launching HealthAlert for WHO on a global scale. The service would enable anyone around the world to access accurate, up-to-date COVID-19 information via WhatsApp.

A partnership was agreed and teams at WHO, Praekelt.org, Turn.io, WhatsApp and Facebook worked to develop a dedicated, end-to-end encrypted messaging service that would ensure people around the world had the best possible health information during the outbreak.

This includes the latest news and information on coronavirus such as details on symptoms and how people can protect themselves and others. It also provides the latest situation reports and numbers in real time to help government decision-makers protect the health of their populations.

In just over a week, the WHO’s HealthAlert was launched on 17 March 2020. To date, the service has reached 12.5 million users around the world in 11 languages, with multilingual content made possible due to translation support from several of Gini’s MBA classmates – including Ashwini Anburajan, Antigone Theodorou, Erica Wang, Hamish Hughes, Francesco Bovoli, James Barton, Marco Donzelli, and Alexander Alexandrov.

In the longer term, WHO and Praekelt.org look forward to expanding their partnership to focus on COVID-19 support for cities. And in the meantime, Chiara and Helen are focused on managing national rollouts of  HealthAlert with governments.

Thus far, Praekelt.org has launched HealthAlert in nine countries in partnership with Turn.io and WhatsApp. Including the WHO service, HealthAlert has reached more than 20 million users globally with COVID-19 information via WhatsApp.

This decade-long journey is rooted in a shared belief that mobile technology can empower people to improve their health.

“This is a remarkable story of partnership that brought together alumni from different cohorts and backgrounds, all connected through their Cambridge MBA experience,” says Chiara. “It adds to the many instances we have observed of Cambridge students and alumni standing united to offer their support to one another during this particularly challenging time. Stories like these illustrate the value of the Cambridge alumni network, the power of preserving relationships built throughout the programme and the collaborative spirit of the Cambridge MBA.”Find out how you can be involved with MBA projects

Find out how you can be involved with MBA projects